For the hundreds of thousands of people working in New York City restaurants—nearly 321,000 to be more precise—there’s a time and date they won’t soon forget: 8pm on March 16, 2020. It’s the moment etched into the minds of anyone who worked in hospitality because that’s when the city shut down all restaurants and bars across the five boroughs (save for those able to offer takeout and delivery).
Nearly two months later, the restaurant industry is still very much in limbo. These businesses—from mom-and-pop dumpling shops in Flushing to ritzy Michelin-rated stalwarts—feel essential to the city’s social fabric. But dining out as we knew it, disappeared overnight and everyone is left wondering: When will restaurants reopen? When can they actually open? Will your favorite neighborhood spot even survive?
Time Out New York reached out to nearly two dozen people, from restaurant owners and baristas to chefs and publicists, and the unanimous consensus was that New Yorkers shouldn’t expect to dine in restaurants before Memorial Day.
“Any chef or restaurateur with any sense of responsibility will not open for dine-in by then,” says Max Zumwalt, chef and owner of Usumoya Restaurant Group, who late last year opened a small omakase restaurant in Chelsea focused on serving sustainable sushi.
Before restaurants even contemplate opening again, they’re awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s updates. The state’s stay-at-home orders are in effect until at least May 15th, and the governor has already hinted that he may reopen New York region-by-region, based on each area’s situation during the current crisis. And even if May 15th is the last day of sheltering in place, there’s a proposed plan with four phases for reopening the state and restaurants are part of the third category. It’s still unclear when the rollout would begin.
“I don’t think there’s any answer to that yet. I think we’re living in a new world,” says Maiko Kyogoku, the owner of Bessou, a Noho restaurant which also opened a location within Time Out Market New York. “All we can do as restaurant owners is find guidance from the government, which has been few and far between right now. We need standards and procedures set by them, so we know how to open safely.”
In the meantime, Kyogoku and her chef, Emily Yuen, have been preparing relief meals with Off Their Plate for hospitals and senior centers, while also offering delivery to keep the restaurant afloat with only one other employee.
But even when restaurants can safely reopen, there’s the question of whether diners will return. The results of a poll, conducted by the Washington Post and University of Maryland, released last week showed that 78% of Americans said they would be uncomfortable eating at a restaurant.
Restaurant owners have talked about new measures they’d likely have to implement once they’re given the green light to welcome diners back. A sampling of challenges they face (and expect) include: What will limited capacity for dining rooms look like? How will social distancing be monitored? Do servers wear masks? Should restaurants implement a reservations-only policy? Do they ditch menus and have diners place orders ahead of time? Will the subway even be open for employees that live further out? Silverware or plastic?
“When you have a vision for a restaurant, you have an idea of what it will be like—the smell, feel, look. But you have to let all that go now,” says Beatrice Stein, a hospitality consultant who’s worked with clients including Magnolia Bakery and the lauded Japanese restaurant Masa. “That’s hard when you’ve spent a lifetime creating that vision and now it has to all change.”
The health and safety of employees is also a concern, says Roni Mazumdar, owner of the popular Indian restaurant Adda in Long Island City. While he’s eager to reopen soon, he wants to do so when he knows he’s not putting workers or guests at risk.
“There’s one thing I’ve learned throughout this experience and it is to not predict the timeline,” Mazumdar says. “If we open in July, August or September, we will make it happen. We don’t want to rush into something.”
Increasingly, more and more restaurants have started offering delivery and takeout (some have even turned into grocery stores) as they perhaps test slowing opening. While Adda's most loyal diners have supported the small restaurant (there are 46 seats), Mazumdar adds, the delivery service can't keep the restaurant alive long term.
“This is not a sustainable situation,” Gov. Cuomo said during his May 4th press briefing. “Close down everything, close down the economy, lock yourself in the home. You can do it for a short period of time, but you can’t do it forever.”
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