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Indoor dining banned in NYC to limit virus spread
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced that indoor dining restrictions will be reinstated in New York City on Monday, as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue climbing in the city and throughout the state. (Dec. 11)
NEW YORK – Billy Cole said the restaurant has lost tens of thousands of dollars since the start of the pandemic, if not $100,000.
Workers have been furloughed and salaries cut at Little Dokebi, a Korean restaurant in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Despite the losses, it’s been one of the lucky ones because it’s on a corner with plenty of outdoor dining space, said Cole, the general manager.
After this week’s snowstorm signaled the start of cold weather and the governor renewed a ban on indoor dining, Cole knows it’s going to be almost exclusively takeout and delivery orders that drive business for the next several months.
“What’s a heater gonna do when it’s 30 degrees out and you’re 50% exposed anyway,” Cole said.
Restaurants around the country have struggled for months to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, facing layoffs and pay cuts and investing in personal protective equipment and outdoor dining infrastructure all while some customers still haven’t returned.
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The start of winter weather portends what could be an even darker few months for the dining industry as restaurants struggle to balance safety measures for their patrons and staff with meeting their bottom lines.
“We need to brace ourselves for an even worse period for the restaurant industry,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
According to the National Restaurant Association, sales have begun to dip again in the colder months after the summer saw some progress.
Restaurant sales were about $65 billion in the months before the pandemic but plummeted to $30 billion in April, according to Census Bureau data. They peaked in September at $55.7 billion but declined in October and November.
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One reason for the dip has been the closing of outdoor dining options, the National Restaurant Association said. From September to November, the number of full-service restaurants offering outdoor dining nationwide dropped by almost a quarter, while partial-service operators saw almost a 15% decline in outdoor offerings.
“For many restaurants, outdoor dining was what was sustaining them through this crisis because they needed that revenue,” said Mike Whatley, the restaurant group’s vice president of state and local affairs. “But cold weather and especially the snow is a real challenge for the industry.”
Wednesday, the nearly 11,000 restaurants participating in New York City’s outdoor dining program faced a new dilemma: about a foot of snow forecast.
The Department of Sanitation, which operates the city’s snowplows, told restaurants that the structures many had built to house their outdoor seating could remain on the streets but that staff would have to bring in tables, chairs and electric heaters.
New York City’s restaurants also faced an indoor dining ban that went into effect Monday as Gov. Andrew Cuomo reversed the policy that had allowed diners to eat inside since late September while operating at 25% capacity. The rest of the state has indoor dining operating at 50% capacity, except for areas with high COVID-19 rates, which drop to 25%.
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Randy Peers described the snow, closing indoor dining and other COVID-19 restrictions as a triple whammy.
“We can’t control the weather, but we can control things like, do we shut down our economy, do we allow restaurants to open indoors and things like that,” Peers said. “It’s the worst possible timing for our restaurants, and we’ll have to see how it all plays out, how long it lasts. But from an economic perspective, it’s a pretty dire situation.”
At Little Dokebi, Cole said staff partially deconstructed and lifted their structure onto the sidewalk before the storm. That, in effect, closed outdoor dining, which Cole said he doesn’t see coming back in the cold months.
He said guidance from the city on what is and isn’t allowed has been “very vague, and they’ve changed the rules too many times to count.”
When indoor dining was allowed, an outdoor structure that was more than 50% covered was considered extra capacity for the indoor operation. Now that indoor dining is banned, Rigie said, those restaurants have to open their structures by removing walls or lifting flaps if they want to still use them.
Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a former deputy health commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that when the cold weather picks up, diners may ask for the flaps on these open structures to close.
“What will the restaurant owner do when the patron requests that?” he said.
‘Not all outdoor structures are created the same’
Outdoor dining may pose less risk of coronavirus transmission than indoor dining because there is greater ventilation outside, which dilutes the virus particles in the air more quickly, public health experts said. But outdoor dining is not risk-free.
“You can think about the virus as behaving in the air like cigarette smoke does,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. “If you have a few people at different tables smoking, think about what that does to the smoke if you have four walls and a roof, versus being out in the open air.”
Some outdoor dining structures may be safer than others, said Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“If a structure is created in such a way that it is an enclosed space, with heating and carpeting, it’s basically an indoor facility outside,” she said.
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Like New York, many cities that permit outdoor dining placed restrictions on the number of walls or sides that must be open to retain ventilation.
Chicago requires temporary outdoor structures that hold multiple parties to have at least 50% of the sides open to allow for air flow. Enclosed structures are permitted for people living in the same household, but they must have adequate ventilation to allow for air circulation, according to city guidelines.
“Igloos” and mini-tents can be seen on sidewalks and closed-off roadways throughout Chicago. Many restaurants require patrons to reserve spaces in advance, limit dining time to two hours or less and clean the structures between uses.
Experts were mixed about the safety of these individual dining experiences.
“The challenge is that the waiter would be coming in or out, or it’s possible that the person who dined there before you, even though they’re not there anymore, the virus in the air could still persist,” Khan said.
Weisfuse said individual structures could provide a good way for people to eat out safely. If the igloos remain limited to one household and restaurants air them out for 15 to 20 minutes between parties, it could be safer than some of the multi-table enclosed structures cities have seen built.
But like most things in the pandemic, the particulars of a dining setup matter, he said. “You have to judge for yourself what the situation is.”
Marr said the least risky option would involve tables spread out in the open air and patrons wearing face masks when not eating or drinking. Some restaurants plan to take this approach over the winter by investing in bonfire pit tables that can be scattered on open patios. Such options may be more limited in cities such as New York, where extra space is a hot commodity.
There’s another factor for people to consider when they’re thinking about dining outside, experts said: noise.
A study in May found that loud talking could leave coronavirus particles in the air for up to 14 minutes, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We know that talking louder releases more aerosols, so if there’s a lot of background noise and that forces someone to talk louder, that’s a riskier situation,” Marr said. “Keep things quiet, and hope that the people around you are quiet, too.”
It’s unclear how much transmission at outdoor dining structures contributes to rising COVID-19 case counts, experts said.
In New York, spread in restaurants and bars accounts for less than 2% of all viral transmission while nearly 74% is through household and social gatherings, according to state contract-tracing data. In Illinois, where indoor dining has been closed since early November, restaurants and bars may account for nearly 6% of COVID-19 exposures, according to state contract tracing data.
California isn’t taking any chances. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns for regions at risk of running out of intensive care unit beds. A ban on indoor and outdoor dining is likely to run through at least Dec. 27.
“The most important thing that we’ve learned over the last year is that there is no zero-risk situation,” Khan said. “The only way to eliminate risk is to not dine at a restaurant.”
Restaurants are ‘teetering on the edge of survival’
At Modern Love, a vegan restaurant in Williamsburg, co-owner Sara Kubersky said the restaurant never reopened for indoor dining and has had counter service with a small outdoor structure for patrons on the street.
“Our guests pick up at the window,” Kubersky said. “We just thought it was safer for the staff and our guests as well.
“If you are going to eat, the less people you interact with, the safer it is,” she said.
Though the restaurant used to serve from a “swanky” menu closer to fine dining comfort food, it pivoted to more of a “fast casual kind of restaurant,” focusing on delivery and takeout.
New Yorkers enjoy eating outdoors, but “when it gets cold you definitely see a drop in business,” Kubersky said.
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Rigie, of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said outdoor dining was “critically important” to keeping restaurants open during the pandemic as restaurants are “teetering on the edge of survival.”
“It brought a vitality and energy back to the city’s streets that was so important for our economic and social well-being,” he said.
Before the COVID-19 shutdowns, there were 325,000 industry jobs in the city. That plummeted to 90,000 in April, Rigie said. It ticked back up to 192,000 in recent weeks thanks to outdoor dining and the brief stretch of indoor service.
But after the storm and the dining ban, those 100,000 jobs that were brought back “are on the chopping block again,” Rigie said.
While Modern Love planned to keep its wooden structure in place during the storm, Kubersky wishes there was more aid from government sources to keep the restaurant industry afloat. From having to buy more takeout containers to building outdoor dining structures, the costs add up. “Our bottom line is affected. … Our sales haven’t quite hit to where they were,” Kubersky said.
“Before I do anything much bigger with outdoor dining, I really want to see what happens in the winter,” she said.
Miller reported from New York City, Hauck reported from Chicago, and Tyko reported from Coral Springs, Florida.