In a press conference on Sept. 9, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the city’s restaurants can reopen their indoor dining rooms at 25 percent capacity beginning Sept. 30. If no major outbreaks occur, this capacity can increase to 50 percent by Nov. 1. The announcement came after months of no response from state officials regarding the fate of small restaurant and bar owners in New York City.
State officials have also called for a comprehensive outdoor dining plan ahead of the New York City outdoor dining program set to end on Oct. 31 with no solid information on a possible extension. However, restaurant and bar owners argue that the announcement came too late and that there is now not enough time to prepare the appropriate permits and order outdoor heating equipment.
Business owners are also worried that the state will pull off another U-turn. Two months ago, state officials announced the reopening of in-room dining but rescinded the decision a week before the roll-out.
This move had cost owners of small, independent restaurants thousands of dollars on ensuring that their establishments were compliant with COVID-19 public health policies and guidelines. But despite the projected loss, some restaurant and bar owners in New York City are hopeful that Cuomo’s decision, however inadequate, is a step in the right direction.
“[Twenty-five] percent is not a fix. Nobody’s pretending it’s a fix,” said Eddy Buckingham, owner of Chinese Tuxedo. “[Twenty-five] percent is not sustainable, but it’s the start of a journey back.”
Since President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency last March, more than 1,000 bars and restaurants in the city have closed their doors with no plan of reopening. Countless others are headed towards the same fate, while those hanging on are doubtful that Cuomo’s reopening of indoor dining will see their businesses open through the winter.
Even before the pandemic, restaurants and bars in New York City had already been struggling against increased rent at 100 percent capacity, said Robert Mahon, owner of Toro Loco and Broadstone. Mahon added that the handful of restaurants and bars that remain open are already operating at a loss, thus making the recent reopening announcement a joke, at best.
Restaurant owners would also need weeks, if not months, to procure the appropriate permits for sidewalk cafes and other outdoor dining spaces, said Ashwin Deshmukh, co-owner and general manager of Short Stories. Deshmukh welcomed Cuomo’s announcement but emphasized that there hadn’t been enough planning beforehand to ensure that restaurant and bar owners could maximize the given window.
There is also the issue of strict rules regarding when and how business owners ought to use their loans from the Payment Protection Program (PPP). The PPP is a $659 billion business loan program designed to help certain businesses, proprietors and nonprofit organizations that have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program prioritizes small businesses, independent contractors and self-employed individuals.
However, restaurant and bar owners argue that restrictions on PPP loans were never tailored for restaurants. For instance, restaurant and bar owners were told that the loan had to be used within eight weeks of it being issued. This stopped a lot of them from using it too soon despite the lack of plans regarding reopening.
Owners claimed that this lack of foresight and guidance from the state have also left them stumbling in the dark, unsure of the future of their businesses should the loans run out. Mahon also said that restaurant owners had received no proper representation in the government. No group or organization has also stepped forward to fight for their right to business, he added.
Like most restaurant and bar owners in the city, Mahon is convinced that the 25 percent indoor capacity is not enough to keep their establishments afloat, let alone open until 2021. What would make matters easier, said Mahon, would be a tax break. In fact, business owners had been expecting a tax break months earlier, but it never came.
To make matters worse, restaurant and bar owners are still left in the dark regarding the science-backed data or criteria that might dictate another shutdown in the coming months. (Related: Sysco warns of hard times ahead as coronavirus decimates restaurant industry.)
Buckingham added that although the limited indoor reopening is a step forward, restaurant and bar owners need to continue demanding support from the state. He has also expressed his support for the RESTAURANTS Act of 2020, a $120 billion restaurant stabilization grant program that prioritizes small, independent restaurants.
The bill separates restaurants from other businesses that receive PPP. It will also cover just those restaurants that do not belong to a chain of more than 20 locations. The bill is still in Congress, and it has already garnered 177 sponsors in the House of Representatives, according to a recent report from Bloomberg.
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