At 5:15 p.m., Keiko Tajima, co-owner of Mountain Bird in East Harlem, was putting the finishing touches in place for the restaurant’s first indoor dinner service since March. The Art Deco-inspired interior was welcoming, with Gershwin classics wafting from the speakers, but much had changed.
Only four tables were set up inside to accommodate social distancing guidelines, and the hostess’s table up front held a bottle of hand sanitizer and a thermometer.
Donovan’s Grill and Tavern, operating in Bayside, Queens, since 1980, felt underpopulated with only 50 people allowed inside. Many patrons still wanted to sit outdoors, but Patricia Snow, 78, chose to eat indoors with her friend. “We wanted to try it out again,” she said.
But at Bulbap Grill, a popular Korean place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, owner Jeff Choi said the 25% indoor occupancy the state allows isn’t enough to balance the added costs, so he’ll stick with outdoor tables for now.
Indoor restaurant dining resumed at 25% capacity in New York City today, bringing some hope to an industry devastated by the coronavirus shutdown of the past six months, but also posing risks in a city where rates of coronavirus infection have begun climbing in some neighborhoods.
Earlier this month, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that restaurants previously restricted to takeout and outdoor service could reopen for indoor dining, he acknowledged the “possible risk,” but said the economic threat was higher.
The city’s 27,000 restaurants have taken a hit. Since February, its food and drink services industry has lost more than 200,000 jobs; as of August, it had gained back fewer than half of them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bourbon Street in Queens lost about 95% of its revenue and laid off almost the entire staff, said Daniel Geoghan, the catering manager.
Similarly, Mountain Bird, which employed 16 people before the pandemic hit, now has four, including Tajima, the restaurant’s hostess and sole server. Letting employees go was painful, she said, “but we had to make a decision to cut the costs.” Though the restaurant converted to takeout immediately after lockdown, then added outdoor dining, it’s still only bringing in a quarter of the revenue from this time last year.
But while leisure and hospitality employment in New York City — which includes restaurants — has suffered the greatest job losses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s also the sector with the largest increase in jobs since April.
Bourbon Street managers reached out to their previous staff when outdoor dining began in June. “A large portion of our staff came back,” said Geoghan, but some did not return. “Either they didn’t feel comfortable, they were going back to school or they were on unemployment.”
The state has imposed substantial restrictions on indoor dining. One member of every party must leave contact information in case contact tracing becomes necessary. Restaurants can’t offer bar service and must close by midnight; patrons must wear masks except when sitting at a table.
Staff members have had to adapt. At Bourbon Street, server Mona Abdelwahab said all staff have to clean diligently, including door knobs. At Donovan’s, servers like Kelly Condron also take on the tasks of busboys, food runners and bartenders, everyone pitching in.
Across the city, restaurateurs and patrons described mixed feelings about outdoors versus indoors. “I don’t want to dine in a room full of strangers because it will increase my risk of contracting the virus,” said Benjamin Chandler, eating at Union Pizza Works in Bushwick. “I prefer to sit outside.”
Though manager Riccardo Roggeri was providing tables indoors, he agreed that “my customers are not in a rush to sit inside of the restaurant. They would rather sit outside and enjoy the last days of warm weather.”
But at Bourbon Street, patron Phillip Baquero said he decided to eat dinner indoors because he felt safe enough and wanted a sense of normalcy. “It’s good to be at a place I’m used to and to show support for a local restaurant,” he said.
Like Bourbon Street, Donovan’s was also hit hard by the pandemic, said Elena Zeoli, the general manager. “March 17 is our biggest holiday,” she said. “It gets slow in the winter, but March 17 makes up for the lull — and the day before, we got shut down.”
Two days later, it opened for delivery and pick up, the only income it had until June, when outdoor dining began. Setting up tables outside comforted customers but didn’t make much financial difference, because it meant re-hiring staff. “What we make in one week, we used to make on a Saturday night,” Zeoli said. But she’s hopeful that even limited indoor dining will help the restaurant industry.
In Carnegie Hill in Manhattan, outdoor dinner service was up and running at Paola’s Osteria, but by 6:15 p.m., few customers had come inside. Fabrizio Dmitri and Armando Alicka, two of the restaurant’s co-owners, were sitting at a table in the back with a colleague, Pietro Romani, sampling a bottle of wine.
Alicka, also the restaurant’s general manager, wasn’t confident that indoor dining at 25% capacity would make much economic difference, but thought patrons would appreciate the option in bad weather. “We’re basically begging God to give us better days to dine outside,” he said.
Paola’s Osteria, which opened just a year ago, tried to convert to takeout but was forced to close entirely in April; its staff refused to come to work for fear of the virus. It reopened in July, but only brought in 10% of normal revenue during the first week. Now, Alicka says Paola’s Osteria is earning about half what it did pre-pandemic and has laid off about 10 employees of its original 44.
“We have suffered,” said Romani, a wine seller and importer. “It’s really affected all of us. You work so hard, and all of a sudden, this is what you have to deal with.”
Cuomo noted that city restaurants represent a “very large universe” to patrol for compliance with state and CDC guidelines, so he has asked New Yorkers to report violations via text or phone, on a hotline number to be posted at the restaurants.
Baquero understands why the government is only allowing 25% capacity. “COVID is still a very real thing,” he said. “We have to ease into it.”
If a spike in infections follow’s today’s reopening, Cuomo said earlier this month, “We can always just hit the emergency pause button.” By Nov. 1, the state will determine whether indoor dining can expand to 50% capacity, as in the rest of the state.
Reporting by Clare Amari, Remmy Bahati, Hannah Flynn and Shanna Kelly. Written by Shanna Kelly.