When Columbia announced in August its plan to limit on-campus undergraduate housing, bars and restaurants in Morningside Heights were faced with a significant hurdle. While outdoor dining has helped many struggling restaurants stay afloat, inadequate government support for small businesses and colder weather, which deters customers from wanting to dine outdoors, has created new challenges for local bars and restaurants.
New York City’s COVID-19 cases have surged drastically in the past weeks, mirroring an uptick in cases nationwide. Public schools shut down on Thursday after the city reached its 3 percent positivity rate threshold, while restaurants, which have a greater risk of spreading the virus, remain open with certain restrictions. Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants and suggested that he expects Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban indoor dining in the near future.
With the CARES Act set to expire in 2021 and little progress on a new relief program or stimulus package, bars and restaurants depend on customers to generate revenue. However, experts have long predicted that an increase in cases over the winter, in addition to colder weather, will further hinder small businesses’ ability to stay open.
After months of changing business regulations on the federal, state, and local levels, the news over the summer that fewer undergraduates would be returning to campus for the fall came as a disappointment for businesses that rely on student patronage. However, the expansion of outdoor dining, as well as the influx of students living in off-campus housing, offered some hope for Morningside Heights businesses at the start of the fall. Restaurants and bars eagerly awaited the return of Columbia students, their most profitable customer base, and will do so again at the start of next term.
With Columbia’s announcement that seniors will be guaranteed on-campus housing in the spring, in addition to the thousands of students who have rented apartments in the city, local bars will likely see a growth in business. Locations like Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor, Amity Hall Uptown, The Heights, and Mel’s Burger Bar have traditionally been integral aspects of social life for Columbia undergraduates. These establishments host events ranging from Greek life semi-formals to weekly Senior Nights and serve as reliable haunts. However, the move also presents the risk of increasing infection rates within a community that is especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Morningside Heights and the neighboring communities of Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights are home to over 110,193 residents, according to 2010 census data. Of this population, 65.7 percent of residents are Black or non-white Hispanic, with 37.2 percent of the total population receiving some type of income support. Research has shown that these communities are disproportionately susceptible to COVID-19, with social and economic inequalities restricting their access to adequate medical care and treatment.
With a nationwide spike in cases, restaurant workers across the country are also renewing their call for relief aid, which they say they need in order to stay afloat. Earlier in March, blanket shutdown orders that were put in place and phased reopening guidelines from New York state helped slow the spread of coronavirus in the city. As restrictions lifted, businesses expanded takeout services and outdoor dining to reach more customers, but the increased contact resulted in the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in the city. In September, even as cases were rising, businesses transitioned to indoor dining, which experts say presents one of the greatest risks of infection for COVID-19.
Robert La France, Vice President of Operations for Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor, acknowledged the risks that come with welcoming more students back to the area, even as local businesses depend on their patronage. “I understand their hesitance to move forward to life as normal. … I have a family so I have [their health] to think about as well.”
Ultimately, local businesses still face uncertainty as state and University guidelines adapt to the changing nature of the pandemic.
“I think operationally, the idea is to be as flexible as possible,” La France said. “If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we have to be flexible because things can change any minute.”