New York City restaurants can reopen for indoor dining at one quarter of their usual capacity on Sept. 30, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
“Because the compliance has gotten better, we can now take the next step,” Cuomo said at a press briefing in Manhattan. The city will field 400 inspectors to police the mask use and social distancing, he said, and called on citizens to speak up about violations.
Cuomo’s decision will come as a relief to thousands of restaurants ranging from Michelin-starred sushi dispensaries like Masa, where a single meal can cost hundreds of dollars, to Gurra Cafe, an Albanian spot in the Bronx where three pieces of the grilled beef sausage called suxhuk will set you back $12.
The city is home to more than 24,000 eating and drinking establishments employing more than a 250,000, according to the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry trade association.
“It’s still a big scary mess, but at least now it’s a big scary mess in the right direction. An hour before the governor spoke we were talking about extinction,” says Alex Stupak, chef-owner of Empellon restaurants in New York. “As a business operator, I don’t love 25%, but I understand it. You have to dip your toe in the water.”
The announcement came after months of work to control the virus in a city that had been the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic. The rate of positive tests now remains below 1% in the state, Cuomo said. There were 463 hospitalizations and three virus-related deaths on Sept. 8.
As the outbreak eased, the New York State Restaurant Association had been lobbying state and federal government for rent relief, payment of business interruption insurance claims, the resumption of indoor dining in New York City, and an increase in the capacity for inside restaurants in other parts of the state.
In a survey released last week, nearly two-thirds of New York state restaurants said that they were likely to close by year end without government support. Of those that expected to close, 55% foresaw it happening before November, according to a survey of more than 1,000 restaurant owners across the state.
“I couldn’t be happier, it’s a huge relief,” said Drew Nieporent, who owns Nobu in Midtown and Lower Manhattan and Batard, a French restaurant in Manhattan’s Tribeca. “At least now we know where we’re going. Let’s hope we can do it successfully and healthfully. The way the industry has adapted so well to outdoor dining, with so many stringent rules, gives me confidence that we can get this done.”
Cuomo said Wednesday that restaurants must have temperature checks and enhanced air filtration systems. Customers must wear masks except when they’re seated, and diners must leave contact information for tracing, Cuomo said.
Bars must remain closed, but bar service will be available for those dining at tables, he said, and restaurants must close at midnight.
“If there is a spike in the infection rate, then we can always hit the emergency pause button,” Cuomo said. If the rate doesn’t increase, restaurants will be able to increase capacity.
Cuomo set a Nov. 1 deadline for deciding whether New York City restaurants can open at 50% capacity, but it could be sooner if all goes well, he said. He said he wants more capacity when cold weather sets in.
The city’s outdoor dining program has more than 10,000 participants, employing about 90,000, said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had resisted calls for indoor dining. He said the city will reassess the program if the positivity rate hits 2%.
“Science will guide our decision-making as we continue to monitor progress and health care indicators over the next three weeks to ensure a safe reopening,” he said. “This may not look like the indoor dining that we all know and love, but it is progress for restaurant workers and all New Yorkers.”