Restaurants are Being Left to Wither and Die
I've written before about how much I missed restaurants, at the start of it all when they were first shuttered. So when they reopened, I was first in line. I've eaten out a lot, as much as I can, outside and yes, inside too. I do it not only because after twenty years covering this industry, I want to support my people, but because I love the experience of dining out. The thrill, the indulgence of being served (as a mom, it sure is nice). The wine glass being filled, the conversation across the table, the way the sun falls low in a summer sky over a table filled with friends and food. It makes life better. And we all need life to be a little better these days.
With winter getting its feet on the ground, and cases rising (though NYC's positivity rate remains among the lowest in the nation), the Governor shuttered indoor dining again. But not gyms. Not nail salons, hair salons, or retail establishments. Why not? Sweating for an hour to you favorite K-Pop playlist inside is okay, but not having a meal?
As the NYC Hospitality Alliance said in a statement earlier this week: "While public health and safety must be paramount, Governor Cuomo's announcement to once again shut down indoor dining in New York City is at odds with the State's own data that's been presented as driving these decisions, and it will be the last straw for countless more restaurants and jobs. And the restrictions begin on Monday with zero economic support for small businesses that are already struggling to survive." Indeed, Manhattan - home to the largest number of restaurants in the state - has a positivity rate of just 2.7%, which is less than half that of many counties throughout the state where indoor dining remains open, Albany (7.2%), Westchester (6.0%), Suffolk (6.1%). Restaurants as an industry are only responsible for a small 1.4% of virus cases as compared to 74% from living room spread. Yet, only New York City's restaurants are being closed even when hospitalization rates upstate are double the city's rate.
The disparate treatment of restaurants —and NYC's restaurants in particular—is rather infuriating. Let's take a step back for a moment and examine the landscape of the restaurant industry. First and foremost, it is an economic engine. As Matt Goulding noted in The Atlantic, the restaurant industry “generates $900 billion a year and employs 15 million people.” It's also the only industry where you can walk in the door, ask for a job with no experience, and work your way up from a dishwasher to a chef, to a busser to a server, to manager, to eventually having the keys to your own place. For all its flaws—and there are many including sexual harassment, unfairly low wages for back of house employees, and racial inequity—it is a place where dreams do come true.
Prohibition of indoor dining is going to kill many more than nearly 1000 establishments already lost.
And yet relief remains illusive. The federal government has still not passed the RESTAURANTS Act, a revitalization program to help mitigate the economic and social devastation caused by the pandemic. In addition, the state government must extend and strengthen the eviction moratorium through 2021 and enhance unemployment benefits for the thousands of workers who will lose their jobs again, and city government must permanently cap third-party delivery fees and require these companies to give restaurants ownership of their customer data.
To be sure, the industry is fighting back. One day after indoor dining was shut down in New York City, a groundswell of more than 1,000 New York restaurant workers, restaurant owners and operators, industry supporters and trade groups including the New York State Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association, the NYC Hospitality Alliance and others rallied in Times Square with a powerful message to the federal government to immediately pass The RESTAURANTS Act, an industry-specific stimulus program to help mitigate the economic and social devastation caused by the pandemic.
“It’s now or never,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, and guest speaker at the rally. “New York City’s restaurant industry leads the nation and is essential to the economic and social fabric of the city. We need the federal government to pass The RESTAURANTS Act now! Another round of PPP funding will not save this city’s beloved restaurants and critical jobs.”
Chefs are doing what they can to survive—pulling out every pivot they can manage, practically pirouetting through the past few months, with whiplash from the fury and pace of changes and blows. They've built outdoor enclosures, produced at home meal kits, virtual cooking and wine tasting classes, heat-and-eat menus, dinner boxes, wine subscriptions, and more organized affairs like the Summer Long Supper Club.
But there is a limit to the impact of pivoting and creativity. While I'll take the at home meal kits and pasta sauce to go, we need much more than dinner boxes and virtual wine tastings. We need policy and legislation to support the industry, and our economy, and the millions of families whose lives, quite frankly, depend on it.