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Indoor Dining to Restart at 25% Capacity, But Is It Enough to Help the Struggling Industry?

The city plans to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity before Valentine’s Day, and not everyone is enamored with the idea

Starting Friday Feb. 12, restaurants in New York City can reopen for indoor dining at 25% capacity. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement Monday, after facing backlash from the industry after initially announcing restaurants could reopen on Valentine's Day.

"We were planning to open the restaurants in New York City to indoor dining on Valentine's Day, but they've made the point that they'd like to open a couple of days earlier so they can prepare for Valentine's Day," Cuomo said, adding it was a reasonable request and he had granted it.

Restaurants, subject to state guidance, will be allowed to operate at 25% capacity indoors provided the temperature of each guest is checked upon entering, masks are worn when diners are not seated and tables are six feet apart. There will be a midnight curfew and contact tracing protocols.

The city's test positivity rate has dropped from a high of 7.1% on Jan. 5 to just below 5% as of Jan. 28, according to Cuomo. In Brooklyn, the seven-day average is hovering around 5.5%. If the 7-day average spikes again, indoor dining will cease. 

Mixed feelings amongst restaurant leaders

The owner of Amaranto, a Michelin-acclaimed Mexican restaurant in Bushwick, Fermin Teco said although the capacity was very limited, having indoor dining was a relief -- with everyone exhausted by take-out and outdoor dining.

Amaranto is a critically acclaimed Mexican restaurant in Bushwick. Photo: Miranda Levingston for the BK Reader.
Amaranto is a critically acclaimed Mexican restaurant in Bushwick. Photo: Miranda Levingston for the BK Reader.

"It's been a long time and people have not had a chance to have dinner inside the restaurant, so everyone is excited," he said, adding: "It might not be enough to keep us going, but it helps a little bit more than only delivery,"

President and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Randy Peers said there was nothing to love about having to wait until Valentine's Day weekend to reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity. He said it was not enough to sustain restaurants, and 50% would be ideal -- especially given NYC's relatively low virus positivity rates.

"[Restaurants will] be limited to 25% occupancy, while 50% occupancy is allowed in restaurants across the rest of the state where transmission and hospitalization rates from COVID-19 remain higher," he said. He added Brooklyn's struggling restaurants were in desperate need of relief and were looking forward to safely welcoming customers back indoors.

Amaranto's interior is in the getting-ready stage for Friday. Photo: Miranda Levingston for the BK Reader.
Amaranto's interior is in the getting-ready stage for Friday. Photo: Miranda Levingston for the BK Reader.

74 NYC restaurants, including East Williamsburg bar Our Wicked Lady and Bushwick's Momo Sushi Shack, have filed an emergency motion calling on a New York judge to allow them to reopen indoor dining at half capacity. 

But for Lisa Fernandes, owner of casual Thai and Vietnamese eatery Sweet Chili in Bushwick, the 25% capacity limit was agreeable, given the risks indoor dining posed to restaurant staff. 

"Now that we had our first vaccinations I feel a little bit better about it, but I would definitely say there are still a lot of concerns over people not abiding by the rules," Fernandes said

"I like the 25% capacity just because it's a small space and I feel better about only having about 15 people in the restaurant, but we won't know really if it is enough to keep us going until we're in the middle of it." 

Fernandes said the restaurant was already prepared with HVAC filters and UV lights, and all the systems were in place for safety. "All we have to do is put the tables back where we already pre-marked the spaces for 6 feet apart, and then we're ready to go."

Sweet Chili in Bushwick serves fun thai and vietnamese food. Photo: Miranda Levingston for the BK Reader.
Sweet Chili in Bushwick serves fun Thai and Vietnamese food. Photo: Miranda Levingston for the BK Reader.

The struggle is real

According to a survey conducted in November by the New York State Restaurant Association, indoor dining won't be enough to save 54% of New York City restaurants. The survey found over half of all city restaurants would likely close if there was not another federal relief package. The survey polled 238 restaurants in NYC.

In Brooklyn, at least 67 restaurants have closed in the past ten months due to the pandemic, putting hundreds of people out of work. Those that have been able to make it through have had to roll with the punches for months now in order to survive, constructing outdoor eating areas, acquiring ventilation equipment, purchasing heating devices and applying for loans.

On top of dining, many restaurants are increasingly looking at alternative ways to raise funds, and many have set up GoFundMe pages and are selling merchandise, gift cards and meal kits as an alternative to, or as well as, returning to indoor dining. 

Now, as the weekend approaches, owners are hoping lovers choose to treat each other with a break from cooking, and spread love to their local restaurants as well.

Miranda Levingston

About the Author: Miranda Levingston

Miranda Levingston is an award-winning reporter and editor passionate about covering the change-makers in her borough.
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