Most New York restaurants, if they followed the rules and adapted to the pandemic, could serve seated customers for a total of nine months this year.
Francie got seven days.
Francie, a polished brasserie off the Brooklyn side of Williamsburg Bridge that wanted to make a name for itself with roast crown of duck, originally planned to open in June. However, that was before the world changed. Construction in the city was stopped. Upon resumption, permits took longer than ever. Narrow sidewalks in front of Francie’s limestone building, combined with some inconveniently placed hydrants, made alfresco dining impossible.
The owners, John Winterman and Christopher Cipollone, kept making adjustments, spending $ 3,000 on filters and ultraviolet light to purify the air in their dining room. Francie finally opened on December 4th and did not use more than 30 of its 122 seats as required. A week later, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he would stop indoor dining in the city from Monday until an increase in Covid-19 cases subsided.
“We’re going to have to make heartbreaking calls to 16 employees and they’ll be pending,” said Winterman. “Which sucks professionally.”
This feeling is shared by people in places that have walked longer than Francie. The closing of dining rooms, which only reopened in late September, gives restaurants another kick at the end of a year when everyone and everything seemed to be conspiring against them.
We can start with the coronavirus itself, which may have been specifically designed to cause maximum damage in rooms where strangers are animated speaking in close proximity. (Note on cult of your own reality: It’s a phrase. It wasn’t developed at all.) But the more we learn about it – including the results of a South Korean study that shows that an infected person got the virus after just 10 Minutes of exposure passed to someone sitting more than three feet away – the more we understand that people in restaurants are unusually susceptible to infection.
We could move on to health authorities and politicians at all levels, local to global, and what a bad job they have done in general to help people understand the importance of minimizing our risks. If we had continued to listen to what the experts knew about preventing the disease from spreading, at least until early summer, we might have got them under control so that eating indoors would not be so risky now. But we screwed it up and Covid fell back from the shadows like a monster in a horror movie.
We should stop marveling at the uncomfortable comedy act of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo who are so busy arguing and contradicting each other that they cannot deliver a unified message. Not that these people need help to be contradicting. Everyone contradicts themselves, changes their minds, signals one thing and then does another.
“The blanket shutdown is a bit of a betrayal,” said Winterman, who supported Cuomo’s strategy of targeting small geographic areas based on their case rates and hospital stays. Mr Cuomo undermined his case for a citywide shutdown when he acknowledged restaurants and bars accounted for less than 2 percent of new Covid cases, while saying “74 percent of new cases come from house gatherings and living room spreads”.
Eating outdoors, which is allowed to continue for the time being, would theoretically be safer if all restaurants followed regulations that require at least half of the wall space to remain open. But many aren’t and enforcement has been rare. The colder it gets, the more the streets and sidewalks are covered with dining areas so completely walled in with plywood and Plexiglas that anyone who sits in it, as far as the virus is concerned, eats in a restaurant.
Mr Cuomo promised to extend the January 1 moratorium on commercial evictions. Congress passed the CARES bill, which wasn’t perfect but kept many unemployed restaurant workers afloat while they were undocumented. However, the paycheck protection program has been a disaster for many restaurants, as industry groups have repeatedly pointed out, every time Congress had a chance to fix the problem and turned it down. Another bill that slams up to $ 120 billion to save independent restaurants and bars is the slow cobweb collection in Washington. Congress hasn’t explicitly told restaurants to drop dead yet, but then the year isn’t quite over.
While this is hellish for restaurateurs, it’s no better for their staff, current or past. Those who weren’t put on hold when the dining rooms were allowed to run at 25 percent capacity but were hoping to return when the limit was raised to 50 percent or more now have to worry about being out of work before spring to have. Many of those waiting for tables inside were exposed to stressful conditions and increased risk from having to spend their entire shift breathing the same air as customers taking off their masks the moment they sat down.
Some of these servers may be able to operate outdoors. Will their tips cover the cost of the cold weather equipment they need when winter really comes in? For the past two weeks, with early evening temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s, the crowd has been thin. Most outdoor tables are empty long before the 10pm curfew, though some owners ask to stay open later to make up for lost indoor revenue.
The only silver lining I can think of is that those idiots who don’t put their masks on when they place an order choose to cover their faces with scarves when it gets cold.
For diners who don’t work in restaurants, just value them and try to keep them in business if money allows, it means winter may be even worse than the lockdown this spring. We were younger then. We still remembered what it was like to eat an egg roll hot from the deep fryer, stand too close to a stranger at the bar, go to a host without a reservation on a Friday night and get a smile that that redeemed all week.