New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced on Monday that restaurants in the state could resume indoor dining starting this Friday, with a 25 percent capacity rule along with all the other COVID-19 safety guidelines already established. But so far, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have made it clear that indoor dining will not resume in NYC any time soon, due largely to the density of the city and concerns about a widespread lack of compliance with current social distancing guidelines.
The city’s restaurant industry is on the verge of a collapse without some sort of intervention from officials. According to a recent survey by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), 90% of New York’s restaurant owners say that it will be very or somewhat unlikely that their establishment will be profitable in the next six months. All of this has left restaurant and bar owners asking: if the city is dead-set against indoor dining returning, what can be done to help?
At the moment, the best hope for the industry lies with the RESTAURANTS Act, a bipartisan federal bill introduced this summer that would create a $120 billion fund to aid small and locally-owned restaurants, and would specifically cover the difference between revenues from 2019 and estimated revenues through the rest of the year. It’s being backed by numerous New York restaurant groups, including NYSRA, who in partnership with the National Restaurant Association included the bill as part of their “Blueprint for Restaurant Revival” proposal, which lists several methods for short-term funding for restaurants.
NYSRA president & CEO Melissa Autilio Fleischut told Gothamist they specifically support the Senate version of the bill, “because the language includes more small businesses than the House version. For example, a single unit franchisee with one restaurant would not be able to utilize funding under the House version of the bill, but would be able to avail themselves of funding under the Senate version.” The language notes that restaurants and bars that are not part of a chain of 20 or more locations, and aren’t publicly traded, would qualify for the aid.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said his group is also supporting the bill, and emphasized the need for immediate action in the face of the crisis happening to the restaurant industry in the city.
“If the governor and mayor will not permit restaurants to begin opening up indoors in NYC, what are they doing to provide rent relief to these small businesses?” he asked. “These restaurants are not closed because they had bad burgers or a bad inspection, they’ve been mandated by governments to be shut. Now we need that same government to support these restaurants while they keep them shut if they ever want to reopen in the future. The RESTAURANTS Act needs to be enacted into law.”
He also pointed out other ways local leaders could move to help restaurants in the interim, including getting business interruption insurance claims paid and eliminating commercial rent tax for restaurants and nightlife establishments.
The city’s precarious financial situation as a result of the pandemic makes any substantial financial aid from City Hall appear unlikely.
“We know small businesses and restaurants are hurting, and we support any effort to get them the financial relief they deserve,” said City Hall spokesperson Mitch Schwartz. “We’re proud of our nation-leading Open Restaurants program, but we know some businesses can’t rely on that alone.” (The Open Restaurants program ends at the end of October.) “Indoor dining continues to be a high-risk activity,” he added, “and the federal government should step in to save jobs and keep Americans healthy.”
De Blasio reiterated the city’s stance during his Monday morning press conference: “Is there a way where we can do something safely with indoor dining? So far we have not had that moment, honestly,” he said. “I do expect and pray for a vaccine in the spring that would allow us all to get more back to normal. But I will absolutely tell you that we’re going to keep looking for that situation where we can push down the virus enough that we would have more ability to address indoor dining. We’ll have more to say on that in the coming days, but it would take a huge step forward to get to that point, that’s the truth.”
During a call with reporters on Monday, Cuomo acknowledged that with New Jersey restarting indoor dining, there would be more pressure for the state to bring it back to the city. He said that NYC restaurants were now at a “competitive disadvantage” because diners could cross the bridge or tunnel and eat in New Jersey.
“I’m aware that restaurants in New York City are very unhappy with doing no indoor dining, I understand the economic consequences, their argument will now be exacerbated [because of NJ] and it’s something that we’re watching and considering,” he said. “I want as…