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Photograph: Time Out/Ali Garber

How close is NYC to banning indoor dining again?

With cold weather coming and new dining restrictions in place, New Yorkers are left wondering when—and if—indoor dining will get the boot.

By Christina Izzo
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It’s been six weeks—a lifetime in COVID years—since NYC restaurants were allowed to re-welcome diners indoors at 25-percent capacity. Should positive cases remain low, that percentage was supposed to bump up to half capacity on November 1, keeping in line with restaurant allowances permitted in other parts of New York State. But instead, as infection rates rise around the city, the chances for indoor dining to make a real, vital comeback are shrinking.

On indoor dining, they're at 25 percent—they were supposed to go to 50 percent, I stopped that and I just closed them at 10:00 p.m.,” said Governor Cuomo on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” earlier this a.m. “If the numbers continue to go up, we're going to clamp down even more.” 

However, the yardstick for such “clamping down” keeps moving: Back in September, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would reconsider the initial allowances if the city’s positivity rate hit two percent. Newsflash: We’ve coasted well past that threshold—we hit a seven-day rolling average of 2.6 percent last week—and are nearing the three-percent positivity point the mayor said would determine if schools would again shutter. In a press briefing last week, De Blasio was open to reevaluating the two-percent benchmark and many officials, including State Senator Brad Hoylman, urged the city to reconsider the indoor-dining policy. Ultimately, however, it’s Cuomo’s call.  

“When we saw the micro-clusters in Brooklyn and Queens, the strategy that was implemented there seems to have worked,” says Andrew Rigie, the Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, highlighting Governor Cuomo’s zoned-shutdown approach to control COVID spread in hotspots like Borough Park and Far Rockaway. “Any additional limitations or shutdowns need to be done surgically,” says Rigie. “Just shutting down an entire industry is not necessary. It’s financially devastating.”

While outdoor dining has helped restaurants survive during the mild, 70-degree days of the past few weeks, once the winter chill begins to set in, the feasibility of eating al fresco is slim. “Outdoor dining has been incredibly important, but has never been intended to be the sole solution to save the restaurant industry,” says Rigie. “How many people are going to be willing to sit outside in 25-degree weather, even if there are heat lamps?” And efforts to restrict restaurants, whether an indoor-dining ban or Cuomo’s latest 10pm curfew, are all for naught if not coupled with financial support, Rigie says. “Public health and safety has to be paramount, of course, but the livelihoods of restaurant owners and restaurant workers must be paramount, as well.” 

The question of when indoor dining will close changes as quickly as rates do. Of schools, which reopened the same day as dining rooms back in September and have posed as a sort of symbiotic signal for restaurant closures, De Blasio said city classrooms will remain open today and tomorrow as cases teeter below three-percent positivity. Beyond that, it seems not even the mayor knows. As with everything COVID-related these days, a mere 24 hours can cause seismic shifts, and eagle-eyed eaters should look to daily briefings from the powers that be during these next few days before snagging that cozy indoor reservation.

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