COVID-19 hit New York restaurants in multiple ways: outdoor dining has become a semi-permanent fixture, to-go cocktails are about to turn into the new normal, staff shortages have sent shockwaves through the system and a new ingredient shortage seems to make headlines on the daily.
Two years in, as Omnicron spreads fast and consistently, the eateries are dealing with a novel problem: folks who made reservations months in advance are now testing positive and, sometimes at the very last minute, simply can't fulfill their obligations.
How are restaurants dealing with the last-minute cancellations? Are they giving folks their money back? How are they filling up their dining rooms?
"We understand the situation of guests who require cancellations day-of due to exposure or positive test results," a spokesperson for Atomix, the upscale Korean restaurant in NoMad, told us over email. "For this reason, for COVID-19 we issue a full refund and offer assistance to rebook the reservation for guests when they have returned to full health, based on availability."
At Eleven Madison Park, where diners are to pay for their meal in full ahead of time, the staff will help you reschedule your reservation if having to cancel due to COVID-19. You will, however, not get a refund.
At Masa, on the other hand, reservations come along with a $650 deposit per person. Tables of 1-4 people can receive a full refund if canceling their reservation 48 hours in advance. Parties of 5 or more need to call at least a week in advance to get their money back. If cancelling past those respective deadlines, you won't receive a refund but you'll be able to apply the credit to a future reservation. Interestingly enough, the restaurant's policy applies to COVID-19-related cancellations and not.
Although no-refund approaches aren't anything new, diners have never really had to deal with abrupt positive tests and quarantine restrictions—which is likely why a lot of them are now actually trying to sell off their reservations through social media platforms and, perhaps surprisingly, on Reddit.
On r/FoodNYC, a subreddit group, posts written by folks trying to get rid of pre-paid tables have become commonplace.
"Hi there, I have a reservation for 2 people at EMP December 30 at 5:45pm with wine pairing and we will no longer be able to make it," write one user. "Looking to sell to someone at face value (~$900). Secure transfer done through their booking platform, Tock."
And another one: "Looking to transfer a Bar Tasting Menu at Eleven Madison Park reservation for 2 people on Jan 3 2022, 9pm, at face value, $381.06 as we won't be able to go unfortunately."
New Yorkers who can't seem to secure a table in a traditional manner have taken a hint as well. "Anybody looking to offload a reservation for either night of [the Atomix x Central collaboration] hook me up!" one user writes. "I tried to get a reservation but sold out way too fast."
Even reservation platform Tock, used by a whole lot of New York restaurants, has had to make its policy known. Talking to Eater, Tock founder Nick Kokonas explained that non-refundable prepaid bookings are "like a ticket of the booking owner." As a result, diners are allowed to sell them off—but they're not allowed to be making a profit. "If we see an IP address that is doing this multiple times, we block them and their associated email address accounts from buying future bookings as they are likely a scalper," he explains.
It seems like the pandemic has birthed a new only-in-New-York career: the restaurant scalper.
Clearly, the situation is a developing one as COVID-19-related restrictions and guidelines are constantly shifting, but we do think that having a contingency plan in place isn't a bad idea. And so, to recap, if you've got a pre-paid reservation at a restaurant and you unfortunately test positive for the virus, make sure to call up the eatery right away. If they don't offer you a refund, head to Facebook, Twitter or Reddit to sell your table to one of the many New Yorkers constantly looking for one. And, if that doesn't work, perhaps consider your payment a contribution to the city's restaurant industry—they sure need it, these days.