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Cuomo: NYC indoor dining decision by end of week
Despite declaring the holiday surge of COVID-19 over, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo said that no decision on the reopening of indoor dining in New York City has been made. He said a decision will come by the end of the week. (Jan. 27)
NEW YORK – Billy Swenson is waiting for the call back.
It’s been about 11 months since he was furloughed from his serving job at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant.
At the beginning, the time away from work was a welcome break. Some days before the pandemic, he was on his feet for 12 hours, also working in catering when jobs arose.
Now, things are dragging on. “Unemployment does not scratch the surface of the money we used to make,” he said. “Sitting here making a quarter of what we used to make … that has been very stressful and there’s been not much relief.”
Swenson is one of the thousands of workers in New York City’s beleaguered restaurant industry hoping to get back to a semblance of normal as indoor dining in the city reopens this week.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that restaurants and bars could allow guests back inside at 25% capacity on Valentine’s Day and then on Monday moved up the date to Friday.
Governors and mayors elsewhere in the U.S. have also recently reopened or loosened restrictions on indoor dining, including in Philadelphia, Chicago, the Portland, Oregon, area, Maryland’s Montgomery County and New Jersey.
While new COVID-19 cases are on the decline in New York City, similar to the rest of the U.S., they remain at higher levels than when Cuomo shuttered indoor dining in early December, city data as of Wednesday shows. New York state has also reported at least 59 cases of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the U.K, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says the U.K. variant could become the country’s predominant strain by March.
COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets during close contact with other people, but it can also linger in the air and spread when people are more than 6 feet apart in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, the CDC says. As a result, public health experts agree that dining outside, with better air flow, has a much lower risk compared to indoors.
But the return of indoor dining comes at a pivotal time in the industry’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as many restaurants remain holding on by a thin rope, workers, owners and advocates say.
“It’s just been such a challenging situation,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “This is an economic crisis unlike any other we’ve had in the past.”
‘Not working is kind of scary’
Swenson, 28, has been living in New York for about five years, also working as an actor. The pandemic has led to auditions drying up, too.
“Not only my serving job, and my survival job, is done but my passion and my career has all been halted,” he said.
However, Swenson knows he’s been one of the lucky ones in the restaurant industry during this time. He was able to get unemployment benefits relatively quickly after being furloughed and has savings to help him get through.
His restaurant, located near Madison Square Garden, has been open for takeout only as it largely served people working nearby in Manhattan and tourists before the pandemic.
While he said his manager has always been supportive and communicative about developments with staffing, Swenson isn’t sure when, or if, he’ll get a call about returning to work.
“There are a large amount of us as servers,” he said. “Maybe it will slowly trickle in. I’m just not sure.”
Diandra Sital, 32, is also on furlough from her job at a seafood restaurant in the Bronx. She described working in the industry during the pandemic as “this large waiting game.”
In March and April, scores of New York City restaurants shuttered as the city was the epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak. Restaurants were initially limited to takeout and delivery, but in June, officials announced that they would be allowed to serve patrons outdoors.
As the city’s cases declined over the summer, Cuomo announced in September that indoor dining could return at 25% capacity. But as the winter surge arrived, so did the renewed ban on dining.
It took Sital several weeks to begin seeing her unemployment benefits after she was furloughed from her current job amid the second shutdown of indoor dining. She also had been approved for a new apartment just before she was furloughed.
“Not working is kind of scary,” she said. “That’s the anxiety part of it. The not knowing” of when you’ll be able to work.
“I’m a single mom of two children,” having to navigate a similarly in-flux reopening plan of the city’s schools during the fall months, she said. “It’s a lot of other stress that COVID is bringing.”
‘All we’re doing right now is purely to stay alive’
More than 140,000 New Yorkers in the city’s restaurant industry lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, according to the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
And New York City is not alone: More than 8 million bar and restaurant employees were laid off in the spring last year during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, the National Restaurant Association estimates. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only about 4 million of those jobs were added back from May to October, and the industry has sustained job losses every month since November.
Even before the pandemic, it was challenging for restaurants to survive in this city, Rigie said, so many restaurant owners are welcoming the return of indoor dining.
“Twenty-five percent (capacity) is not going to save the industry, but it’s more than 0%,” he said .
Philippe Massoud, chef and owner of ilili Restaurant in Manhattan, said if he’s lucky, he’ll be break even this year. “All we’re doing right now is purely to stay alive,” he said.
Massoud said his restaurant closed completely at the start of the pandemic and reopened for takeout in May. He has had to turn to retail, selling chef kits for at-home use in the tri-state area to supplement what they’re making. His restaurant opened in 2007 and survived the recession so, “we are very nimble financially.”
However, that would be possible had he not been able to work out a “reasonable and realistic” agreement with his landlord on rent.
Both Massoud and Rigie are worried that even if restaurants across New York manage to survive to a time when capacity increases and more guests are dining inside, the amount they’ll still owe to landlords could cripple them.
“If we don’t deal with the rent crisis, it’s going to be tragic for our city,” Rigie said.
Massoud said as he’s reopened he has had to reduce the number of stations in his kitchen and distribute limited hours to employees. Like many other restaurants, he invested in building an outdoor dining structure and other costs to keep the restaurant safe for guests and employees.
Fauci: Eating indoors possible if ‘done carefully’
When indoor reopened in the fall, Massoud said they had zero infections among the staff and weren’t contacted by city contact tracers about any infections among patrons.
Massoud said he believes indoor dining can be done safely and that there will be demand for it in New York City, even if there are some bad actors who violate the rules and should be punished for doing so.
However, a recent national survey commissioned by HealthCareInsider.com of more than 1,400 adults found that only 26% say they are already comfortable drinking and dining indoors. The survey was conducted in December with a 2.6% margin of error.
When asked last week about indoor dining, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN that it’s possible for it to be safe if it is “done carefully.”
“If you do indoor dining, you do it in a spaced way where you don’t have people sitting right next to each other,” Fauci told CNN, adding that “good airflow” is essential.
Over the course of the pandemic, the science around the risks of indoor dining haven’t changed much, including the fact that outdoor dining or takeout remain far less risky, said Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a Cornell University public health professor and former deputy health commissioner in New York City.
Still, there are ways to reduce the risk of eating inside. In addition to spaced out tables and airflow, restaurants should be paying increased attention to cleanliness, more regularly wiping down tables and cleaning bathrooms, Weisfuse said. A restaurant could have a policy of requiring masks for before and after the meal, which could help reduce risk, he added.
One of the biggest concerns Weisfuse cited, however, is one that restaurants can’t control: People dining with people outside of their families or immediate households. Even when everyone believes they are doing so safely, there’s still a risk in meeting a friend or colleague and sharing a meal inside.
“Sitting down for a half hour or hour with somebody who is asymptomatic is certainly a risk factor,” he said.
‘I haven’t let it break me yet’
As of Wednesday, New York City had vaccinated more than 1 million people, according to city data.
Among those currently eligible for vaccines are all adults over age 65, health care workers, residents and staff in long term care facilities, first responders, grocery store workers and teachers. It wasn’t until last week, days after the announcement that indoor dining would resume, that restaurant workers were added to that eligibility list.
Sekou Siby, the executive director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, said he would have liked to see state and city officials set a goal for a certain number of restaurant workers vaccinated before reopening indoors.
“Just saying we started to vaccinate (restaurant workers) is not enough to say they are protected,” Siby said. “Because of Valentine’s Day, we may have a surge that will cripple the entire industry because of a rush to open.”
Siby said he was especially worried given that many restaurant workers are people of color, who have been vaccinated are lower rates, according to city data.
Swenson said he would wait until he knows he has a shift lined up to try to get vaccinated. He wouldn’t want to take doses away from workers who are already back inside again.
Swenson had a mild case of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic after working alongside a full restaurant staff and seeing hundreds of patrons a day.
“To go in and work with the public (without being vaccinated), I don’t know if I would feel 100% comfortable,” Swenson said. “I don’t want to spread it myself. Some of us had it and didn’t even know.”
Sital said working indoors can feel like a “cesspool of people.” In addition to the stress of getting people’s food orders correct and ready in a timely manner, workers in the industry have become “nurses and security officers or enforces all in a few months,” she said, having to take temperatures and contact information and to enforce mask compliance.
“It causes extra stress and anxiety on the already stressful job,” she said. But, “we still have to work, we still have to eat, we still have to live.”
As she and Swenson wait to get called up, both have tried to focus on positive ways to spend their time while collecting unemployment benefits.
Swenson got an unpaid internship and has been writing. “I didn’t want to walk to out of this quarantine being like I did nothing for a year,” he said.
Sital completed her GED and has been thinking of starting her own food service and catering company. “I guess being from New York you kind of just know how to deal with the humps and the bumps,” she said. “I’ve been living. I haven’t let it break me yet.”
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