After over six months of closure, the historic brown and red booths of Tom’s Restaurant are once again occupied by tourists, Seinfeld enthusiasts, and locals. Since June, diners have chowed down on burgers, pancakes, eggs, and Tom’s iconic milkshakes outdoors in the summer heat while sitting at the restaurant’s bright orange tables. However, the inside of the restaurant remained off-limits for dining until now.
“We had no choice. We needed to survive. We needed to start indoor dining,” Michael Zoulis, owner of Tom’s Restaurant, said. “You can’t survive with seven tables outside, so we’re taking some precautions indoors.”
On Sept. 30, Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed New York City eateries to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. For many restaurants throughout the city, indoor dining has allowed owners and managers to bring in more revenue, rehire laid-off staff, and try to foster a more normal dining experience. For others, particularly smaller restaurants, this transition has been more costly than the revenue it would bring in, and experts say may even jeopardize the health of restaurant staff.
The transition comes about as a result of nearly 1,300 permanent restaurant closures citywide between March and July and thousands of more businesses on the brink of financial ruin as nine in 10 restaurants were unable to pay full rent, even after two months of outdoor dining in August. The Morningside Heights community has lost at least 16 restaurants, including Uncle Luoyang, a Sichuan and sushi restaurant, and Cascabel Taqueria, a Mexican eatery that specializes in street food.
Although over a dozen eateries have benefited from the Open Streets: Restaurants initiative along Amsterdam Avenue, which closes the street for socially-distanced pedestrian traffic on Saturdays and Sundays, restaurants like Tom’s have struggled to increase revenue, especially as a majority of students have not returned to campus.
“This summer has been very bad. We were about 80 to 85 percent down,” Zoulis said. “We’re lucky that we have Columbia University … They gave us a couple months free rent, but if we didn’t have Columbia to help us out with the rent, I don’t think we would have been able to survive this long.”
Don Borelli, who co-owns Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor, feels that despite his restaurant remaining shut all summer, he is optimistic about opening indoor dining because it will increase restaurant revenue while helping bring the community back to a more normal state. Borelli notes that Arts & Crafts' business is driven by the student population at the University; the restaurant struggles during the summer when many students are not around and picks up more business at the start of the academic year.
“This year, even more so with COVID, we didn’t even try to open during the summer even though we were allowed, because nobody was around,” Borelli said. “So it cost us more to pay the staff, we’ve got to buy all the supplies, food… our business decision was to wait and open in September when everybody comes back.”
With indoor dining, Borelli hopes to keep people safe while expanding the number of tables to increase revenue. Although Borelli notes that he and his staff will follow CDC guidelines—the restaurant has bought air purifiers, features crank-style windows to increase circulation, and checks the temperature of each patron—many restaurant workers across the city fear that restaurant owners may not adhere to guidelines and put their staff and patrons' health at risk, according to Anthony Advincula, director of communications for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
“[Reopening] will benefit both the restaurant owners and the workers, but it also increases the risk for restaurant workers, as well as customers,” Advincula said. “Without the proper safety equipment and guidelines that everybody should follow, I think [indoor dining] would be concerning.”
As part of the transition to indoor dining, restaurants are required to check the temperatures of patrons, who must also provide contact information for contact tracing purposes. Tables must be spaced six feet apart, bar seating remains closed, and closing time citywide is set to midnight.
In order to remain as vigilant as possible, Dr. Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, recommends that patrons practice social distancing and good hand hygiene, wear masks whenever possible at the table and bathroom, and remain “watchful and thoughtful” to avoid a false sense of security. Morse also suggests that restaurants have as much ventilation as feasible with high-efficiency filters since proper ventilation can save lives.
“Obviously we know that crowded, poorly ventilated places are very unsafe, and the CDC recently published an analysis suggesting that many of the people who have become infected got it in places like restaurants, so restaurants do have to be careful,” Morse said.
While Morse will not personally dine indoors yet, he notes that transmission rates will fall when restaurants take proper precautions like regular disinfecting, temperature checks, and perhaps dividers between tables. Although, with so little data, there will always remain risks.
Dr. Peter Muennig, professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health, also cautioned that ventilation or UVC light may not be able to stop a superspreader event, which he posits has a “really good” chance of happening.
In South Korea, for example, 56 cases of COVID-19 were linked to one superspreader at a Starbucks in August 2020, likely due to poor ventilation and little mask enforcement among diners. However, none of the four employees wearing masks were infected.
“When you have people in an enclosed situation, you are potentially creating a risk of a super spreader event, even if it’s 25 percent capacity, meaning that potentially everybody in the restaurant could become infected,” Muennig said.
Muennig suggested that with little data and with hundreds of new infections citywide each day, eating outside and ordering takeout may reduce COVID-19 transmission the most. At 25 percent capacity, Muennig said that he could not imagine that many restaurants in the city, especially smaller businesses, could keep their doors open; if a small restaurant only has eight tables, they can only seat people at two of them.
“Either you’re willing to go to a restaurant and risk becoming infected and restaurants to be operating in an economically viable way, or you don’t think that’s a good idea, and you should just let all of these businesses go out of business and save people’s lives, and that’s really the tradeoff we’re talking about,” Muennig said.
Morse also noted that while some restaurants cannot sustain their business just with outdoor dining, other restaurants may choose not to resume indoor dining since they cannot afford the added costs of adequate ventilation or indoor renovations.
When most restaurants cannot afford their rent, the additional revenue from a few indoor tables may not make up for indoor dining costs. Since it will be difficult to enforce all CDC guidelines, some restaurants might also take shortcuts to reduce costs, which could put diners and staff at higher risks especially when between 40 and 60 percent of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic.
Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the city over the past few weeks, Chinese eatery The Tang decided to hold off on indoor dining at least until November. As the restaurant could only seat about nine people indoors at 25 percent capacity, manager Feng Ye said that it was not worth the risk for just two tables.
“To be honest, I think it’s a bit early [to open indoor dining],” Ye said. “When I go out to eat, I still request [to sit] outside even though they now have tables available indoors. I don’t feel safe eating indoors right now.”
The Tang closed until September during the height of the pandemic due to both economic factors and the fact that the restaurant’s owner was stuck in Beijing for many months. In anticipation of indoor dining, the restaurant may invest in a thermal facial recognition scanner that could take people’s temperature without them having to remove their masks.
Despite the risks of transmission, some restaurants note that indoor dining may allow them to hire back more staff who have been laid off since March. In February 2020, over 324,000 New York City employees worked in food services and drinking places, but by April 2020, this number dropped to just under 91,000. As of August, this number has risen to over 174,000, which is only a bit above half the number of employees pre-pandemic.
According to Borelli of Arts & Crafts, the restaurant intends to eventually hire back all staff, but so far has only managed to hire back their long-time employees with their limited business. Borelli notes that while his staff all eventually want to return to work, some are more comfortable returning after a vaccine becomes available, which experts note will not be for a few months.
Ye said that the Tang was supposed to open back in August, but a number of kitchen staff who had to commute via subway felt unsafe returning to work. To accommodate staff requests, the restaurant reopened the first week of September and was able to rehire most of its kitchen staff and some front-of-house staff. The Tang has been able to retain many of its staff by having as many people as possible on each shift, with each staff member coming in for one or two shifts a week so that wages are more evenly distributed.
Like the Tang, fast-casual chain Chinese eatery Junzi Kitchen has not moved towards indoor dining yet and has retained about half its total employees. CEO Yong Zhao explained that “indoor dining is kind of dangerous because the virus is not eliminated,” and to protect the safety of the eatery’s employees, Junzi will continue to operate on a takeout and delivery-only model with an improved online ordering system. The chain will also release a new fall menu and has opened up a new pop-up location called Nice Day in Greenwich Village.
“There’s all this kind of risk, and it’s like an equation … People really need to do their own calculation,” Zhao said. “But nobody has a clear picture about indoor dining.”
Cafe Du Soleil, a French restaurant on Broadway, has been able to bring back less than half of their normal staff, who owner Nadine Chevreux said were enthusiastic but very cautious. Chevreux noted that the restaurant cannot bring back more staff if indoor dining remains at 25 percent and that restaurants which have space should open up at 50 percent indoor capacity.
Chevreux, who also owns Voila Caterers which now can only cater for events of ten or so people due to COVID-19 regulations, put up bubble tents over the summer so that diners outside could social distance in a unique environment. However, she fears that the tents are not feasible below 50 degrees.
“Now it’s going to be cold, and the tents are going to fly away, the branches are going to break. This is what happened to us last week. We had to buy everything new for just a month and a half, and nobody’s reimbursing us for that,” Chevreux said. “The city wants us to do this, this and that, but they’re not paying for it. We have to shell out from an originally small budget.”
For many workers who lost their jobs, the future remains uncertain as there is no guarantee they will be hired back. Advincula of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United explains that if a worker was making above minimum wage, their employer would likely hire back someone making minimum wage instead to reduce costs.
“Let’s say I am a former worker at this restaurant, and I am very outspoken, even if it’s within my rights to ask why am I not being paid on time or why I’m not getting paid sick leave, now that everyone is furloughed or got laid off or whatever the situation is, restaurant owners will definitely not hire me because they know me as someone who speaks out, so that’s soft retaliation,” Advincula said.
Even for those who manage to get their jobs back, the future remains unclear. According to Advincula, there have been no wage rate increases for restaurant workers since the pandemic started, many of whom are working minimum wage. Furthermore, at any moment, workers can face wage reductions or even be laid off again. Additionally, workers in New York City are provided with 40 hours of paid sick leave, which may not cover all wages if a worker falls ill with COVID-19.
For Morningside Heights' struggling restaurants, there are mixed opinions on the city’s decision to go forward with indoor dining, despite the area being one of Manhattan’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. While Ye said that the decision came too soon especially as the city’s cases continue to rise, Borelli noted that indoor dining should have opened earlier, especially since neighboring Westchester and Nassau counties resumed indoor dining back in June.
“I’m not sure if the virus can tell the difference between New York City and Westchester County, so I would have liked to for us to have more consistent guidelines,” Borelli said.
While indoor dining remains subject to debate in the Morningside Heights community, restaurants are remaining hopeful that they can survive and hire back staff while limiting the risk of infection, one dish at a time.
“Restaurateurs are strong people who have always hustled,” Chevreux said. “Even though we’re hustling, we’re survivors, and I think a lot of us are going to keep their head up until this is over.”