(FT) – New York City’s beleaguered restaurants will be allowed to resume indoor dining — at 25 per cent capacity — from the end of the month, giving them some relief from a coronavirus shutdown that has devastated their industry and deprived residents of one of the world’s great food cities. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York state, announced the policy change on Wednesday, after pleading and legal threats from a hospitality industry whose members have been fighting for survival since restrictions were imposed in mid-March. The concession marks a milestone in the city’s fitful recovery from the pandemic. But it comes with tough restrictions that suggest dining out in New York City will, for the time-being, remain a vastly different experience from what it was before coronavirus. Restaurants will be allowed to operate at no more than 25 per cent capacity, with tables at least six-feet apart. There will be no bar service, and they will have to close by midnight. Meanwhile, diners will have their temperatures taken at the door and at least one member of each party will be required to provide contact tracing information. The state will also dispatch additional inspectors to check compliance and create a “tip line” for citizens to report any restaurants that violate the rules.
Still, Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, rejoiced at the news. “The New York City restaurant industry has been financially devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a safe return to indoor dining is critical to help save these vital small businesses and jobs,” Mr Rigie said, thanking the governor. Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and one of the city’s best-known restaurateurs, called Mr Cuomo’s announcement “a hopeful first step to brighter days for our city and industry”. Although he judged the 25 per cent capacity level as “low”, Mr Meyer noted that restaurants at least now had some clarity to begin making plans and rehiring workers. “Bon appétit, NYC,” city mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Under the state’s phased reopening plan, New York City restaurants had hoped to resume indoor dining in early July as infection rates fell across the city. But Mr Cuomo judged that too risky at a time when bars and restaurants were being blamed for a rash of outbreaks in other parts of the country. The resumption of indoor dining was delayed, with little guidance for restaurateurs.
Nobody knows precisely how many city eateries have closed for good due to the pandemic. In addition to restaurant owners and investors, the crisis has also rippled through kitchen and wait staff and a network of restaurant suppliers. Some restaurants have managed to cling on through the summer by retooling to offer take-out service and outdoor dining. Others — from local diners to fine dining establishments — have simply shut down. As the wait for reopening indoors dragged on, several hundred city restaurants joined a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month accusing the governor and mayor of causing “irreparable harm”. Some city politicians also voiced their support. Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said even limited indoor dining would now provide restaurants “an economic lifeline as they all try and keep their doors open through this pandemic”.
New Yorkers have endured a succession of doom-laden reports about residents fleeing to the suburbs and office towers sitting empty — trends that threaten to further erode the city’s already dire fiscal situation. Still, coronavirus infection rates have remained low and many parts of the city are returning to some version of their former life. Schools are set to reopen for in-person lessons for some students later this month. Museums and gyms have also been allowed to reopen at limited capacity. “This is good news and the right step forward, especially for restaurant owners and staff who have been struggling through this time,” Mr Cuomo said on Wednesday. “But it is up to all of us to ensure compliance and the health and safety of those around us.”