Is There a Light at the End of the COVID Tunnel for NYC Restaurants?

Is There a Light at the End of the COVID Tunnel for NYC Restaurants?

A woman chef stands in her new york city restaurant wearing a mask during the covid pandemic

As a native New Yorker, doctor, and food writer, it’s been tough to watch the pandemic ravage the restaurant world—the life force of our city’s local businesses. So much of a New Yorker’s everyday life surrounds supporting the local coffee shop, the bagel shop on the way to work, the Midtown lunch cart, the happy hour watering hole, the downtown speakeasy, and nightlife eatery.

Early in the pandemic, I worked 12-hour shifts in a busy New York City hospital, taking the bus through an eerie shell of a city. I had never seen Times Square so quiet and empty in my life—my stomach dropped as I saw shuttered doors of businesses lining every block. New York City’s bright lights seemed ludicrous without its bustling tourists.

The nation’s restaurant capital quickly became a COVID-19 epicenter, with turbulent infection rates and restaurant policies constantly evolving over the last year.

NYC’s dense configuration and exorbitant commercial rent made the initial mandatory three-month lockdown and other COVID-related restrictions particularly painful for restaurants. Thousands of eating and drinking establishments closed permanently, and over 140,000 people lost their jobs. Midtown restaurants in Koreatown, for instance, have rent as high as $60,000 a month. Those restaurants used to turn each table over 10 times on a weekend; now they’re averaging two turns a night.

Meanwhile, as COVID magnified existing disparities and economic displacement, thousands of New Yorkers marched in protest the murder of George Floyd and anti-Asian harassment and violence began to escalate.

Against this turbulent backdrop, NYC reopened outdoor dining in the summer and fall. Indoor dining returned at 25 percent capacity from September to December, but was banned again after the “holiday spike” in COVID cases at the end of November. Winter proved brutal for NYC restaurants, with storms often disrupting outdoor dining and deliveries. Meanwhile, the percentage of restaurants unable to keep up with rent steadily rose. A survey conducted by the NYC Hospitality Alliance found a staggering 92 percent of NYC restaurants unable to afford December rent.

Indoor dining resumed at 25 percent capacity right before Valentine’s Day, and restaurant workers also became eligible to receive the COVID vaccine in February. The city continues to undergo phased expansion of indoor dining, and is currently at 50 percent indoor capacity. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s three-strikes system for social distancing violations could result in a suspended liquor license or prompt shutdown of the noncompliant bar or restaurant and the city is still under an 11:00 p.m. curfew.

Surviving restaurants were relieved when the Senate passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan, which includes a $28.6 billion fund to assist restaurants.

Cuomo also announced that restaurant workers became eligible for vaccines in early February, although the initial rollout was far from smooth. Since early April, every adult New Yorker is now also eligible for the vaccine. But even with a vaccine roll-out underway, recovery is a long way off for many of the city’s restaurants.

Civil Eats spoke to a number of restaurateurs and food-service workers in order to better understand how they’ve endured the past year and what the future looks like. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Kevin Heald, co-owner of Malt & Mold

The city is quieter; a lot of people have left. But the ones who have stayed are supporting [the bar] in full force. Even in 25-degree weather, locals were waiting for an [outdoor] spot [for beer]. We’re unique in that we sell beer, but we’re half a grocery store [selling things like cheeses and charcuterie], so we were able to stay open when most restaurants had to close and sell beers-to-go.

I didn’t feel completely safe [re-opening during COVID], but like so many small businesses, we rely on cash flow. If I closed Malt & Mold’s doors, we’d be out of business. We take every precaution and follow every CDC guideline. We’re a pretty motivated group, so the staff and I all got vaccinated as quickly as we could once we were eligible. Initially, two of our staff left New York, but we were able to hire two more and keep our doors open.

Do people follow the rules? The quick answer is yes. People generally do want to feel safe. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together. It’s stressful when someone doesn’t have a mask. I have to stand there until they put it on. The fines are very serious and one fine [of $15,000] will put us out of business.

Customers don’t realize that when they don’t follow the rules, it’s the bar that gets fined no matter how many signs we have up. I may get some eye-rolls, but for the most part, people understand.

What are the positives? We’re most grateful for the Open Restaurants Initiative for allowing us to build a storefront and outdoor seating. The city came up with a realistic idea of how to use sidewalk space and defined what businesses can do within their square footage. I’m so proud of the way we were able to transform our space and built everything to code. We had it in our lease that we couldn’t have an outdoor space but our landlord quickly obliged once it was clear we’d go out of business otherwise.

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Our indoor space can only have two people at a time, six feet apart, but now we can seat up to 35 people outdoors. A PPP loan was also essential in helping us stay afloat and pay the staff. We started delivery, which is new. The city’s going to be a wonderland [once the virus leaves] with all the outdoor dining and changes, and I think [people] will appreciate it.

Simon Kim, owner of COTE Korean Steakhouse

Things are looking much brighter. Nothing can be as bad as when COVID first hit. Immediately, we were in trouble and bled for so long. PPP was our lifeline. Without it, we would have gone out of business. We built an outdoor structure for the first time, which was makeshift during the height of COVID.Now we have more permanent charming outdoor settings, like the rest of New York City. With the incoming second round of PPP, we’re able to return all staff to full salary again, which we’re grateful for.

Valentine’s day was an extreme success and I finally saw numbers that I haven’t seen all year. I’m hoping for [a more efficient] vaccine roll-out; if we can survive, I believe there are great things ahead.

What helped us get this far is being flexible and open to new ideas. There was no idea we said “no” to—we truly tried everything. We adapted a Michelin-starred steakhouse to outdoor dining, indoor dining, mail-in steak delivery, cocktails-to-go. Whatever it was, we did it full force with one vision, one mind, and not half-assed. I’m grateful for my nimble staff, who I call “Dragon Slayers” for pushing through.

We have suffered a lot of restrictions and we needed more industry-specific relief [such as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act ]. We needed policy makers to step in, whether it was creating a restaurant relief program, pushing back the curfew, rent forgiveness, or more efficient vaccine roll-out. New York City is already a fiercely competitive restaurant city, with sky-high commercial rent pre-pandemic. Many restaurants were forced to close and are sinking and the government needs to help those shattered dreams and families.

I find a complete disconnect between people loving our food and the news of hate crimes against Asians. I think about my staff and my wife and two kids and everyone’s safety. Diversity should always be celebrated, and especially through food. At the end of the day, we are restaurateurs and we have to continue bringing people together.

Antwoin “Chef Fresh” Gutierrez, executive pastry chef and owner of Fresh Taste Bakery

As [owner of] a virtual bakery, I was able to keep overhead costs down. We never had a brick-and-mortar store and delivered to all five boroughs successfully for years. Ironically, many other businesses ended up picking up this business model during COVID. Early on, I knew I had to hustle and figure out, where are large groups of people able to congregate legally? Hospitals. So, during the pandemic, I matched donations and delivered over 400 cupcakes to healthcare workers all over the New York City.

I believe if you put positive energy out, you’ll always get positive energy back. Giving back is very important to me. Culinary arts saved my life and I learned how to bake from a work-training program called the Doe Fund. I feel blessed that opportunity elevated me to a point where I want to give back to people who grew up in the same environment as me.

The pandemic brings out the power of the pivot. You can’t be too invested or set in your ways. This is not the time to be fearful. I try different things and figure what works for me, and I’m always looking at what the game is missing. I believe in always being social and not competing with others, just creating and letting your product speak for yourself. People are still here and celebrating, and there’s still opportunity.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance

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We’ve lost more than 140,000 jobs in eating and drinking establishments. [We’ve lost] 65 million tourists that usually come every year to experience our sights and food. In Midtown and Lower Manhattan, office buildings are reporting less than 10 percent capacity, and that’s a huge loss for those surrounding restaurants.

Hopefully, we’ll have a restaurant renaissance. But right now, we need to focus on saving as many small businesses as possible and rebuilding the restaurant environment. Pre-pandemic inequalities are being exacerbated now amid a rising rent crisis. Smaller family-owned restaurants are likely facing the greatest challenges. But some of the impact is neighborhood-dependent. You could be a prominent restaurant in Midtown Manhattan that was extremely successful—but now with no customers and sky-high rent [you have] lots of investors to answer to.

We’ve been fighting for critical policies, but the crisis is ever-changing, and we’ve had to [constantly] adapt and gain [political] support. The city government has helped tremendously in keeping thousands of restaurants open. Corey Johnson, Speaker of the City Council, helped introduce the June Outdoor Restaurants Program, which was a critical program that around 11,000 restaurants signed up for—but, to put it in perspective, there were around 25,000 restaurants [in NYC] pre-pandemic.

Outdoor dining brought back an important energy and vitality that is going to be made permanent in NYC. Council Member Rivera helped sponsor temporary suspensions of the personal liability provisions of COVID-impacted small businesses. Council Member Keith Powers has also been tremendously helpful. So much support from so many more people was needed to push all these critical policies through. The incoming [federal stimulus] bill will be a huge help.

New York City Council Member Keith Powers, Manhattan, District 4

My dad owned a bar, so I know how much impact a small business has on a family. Many of these small business owners spend all their time and have their entire finances tied up in a restaurant or bar. New York City restaurants and bars have had an incredibly difficult year.

We all know that restaurants and dining are a big part of everyday life in New York City. It’s why so many people live here. That’s why the City Council has been working on policies to protect local businesses. We’ve made a lot of strides such as the outdoor dining program, which was a huge success. Outdoor dining will be a permanent part of the city and really positively change to the city’s landscape.

The fee cap on delivery services like Grubhub and UberEats was also an important policy to prevent third parties from placing exorbitant fees above 20 percent on local businesses. The moratorium on New York commercial eviction [and mortgage foreclosures] also will likely be extended for small businesses and prevents small businesses undergoing hardship from being evicted. A future policy we’re considering is how to accelerate the process in terms of leases, codes, and paperwork filing for people to start new businesses in the city.

There’s no question that recovery will be long—possibly years. But I’m optimistic, especially with the vaccine, the federal stimulus bill, and the policies we’re working on. Recovery will happen in careful phases to ensure safety. I have no doubt New York City will come out the other end.

Michelle Lee, MD, is a New York City-based doctor and writer who has written about New York food and culture for New York Magazine, Zagat, Eater, and Life & Thyme. She has given podcast interviews on NYC’s Koreatown, the best cookies in NYC, and what it was like working as a NYC healthcare worker during the height of COVID. Dr. Lee also works as a medical writer and editor and has published medical research on psychology, neurology, and coronavirus. She is a community activist and has written about rallying for the AAPI community during escalating anti-Asian hate for Stat News. Read more >

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