NYC restaurants starved by pandemic threaten lawsuit to bring back indoor dining

Restaurants struggle to survive on revenue from outdoor dining as cooler temperatures loom

As autumn quickly approaches, a coalition of New York City restaurants is calling on state and local officials to devise a plan for the return of indoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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At a virtual news conference on Wednesday, the New York City Hospitality Alliance – which represents thousands of restaurants, bars and clubs – spoke out, demanding action from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

According to a Wednesday report in Gothamist, indoor dining at 50% capacity has been allowed elsewhere in New York state since June, but not in the Big Apple – the last part of New York to reopen.

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On Tuesday, de Blasio reasserted that the "most important thing ... is to get to the point where we have a vaccine and then we can really come back."

But when exactly a coronavirus vaccine would be made available – if at all – is unclear. While some say the likelihood is winter, others predict it won't happen before 2021.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he was "personally disappointed" in the state's utilities and that New Yorkers are "fed up" with them. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

A spokesperson for the mayor later clarified that a vaccine is not "a definitive requirement for indoor dining,"

Meanwhile, one-third of the city's small businesses have already closed, including many of its 27,000 restaurants.

In addition, the city just reported the lowest infection rate since the pandemic started in March.

On Wednesday, Cuomo told reporters during his own news conference that the decision is ultimately up to him.

"New York City doesn't decide when the New York City restaurants open," he said. "Nassau doesn't decide when the Nassau restaurants open. The worst thing we can do now is cause confusion for people with different politicians saying different things."

Cuomo also highlighted the difference between the city's demographics and population, adding that there is "a much bigger problem in New York City today than any of the surrounding suburbs with a lack of compliance."

According to an analysis by Gothamist, more than 100 New York City establishments have had their liquor licenses suspended over the past month for violating the state's COVID-19 guidelines, with almost half of them getting suspensions because of indoor dining.

“Restaurants throughout the rest of the state have met the same benchmarks New York City restaurants have, and they have been opening and operating indoors at a reduced occupancy for months now,” NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie told Crain's New York on Wednesday. "There is no reason that we have been presented why New York City restaurants are any different.”

Rigie, who was present at the Wednesday Zoom conference, also emphasized that the industry's survival hinges upon indoor dining restarting – noting that outdoor dining was "never meant as a solution to save our restaurants."

Outdoor dining also has an expiration date of Oct. 31, as temperatures plunge into the 50-degree range.

Rigie stated that while the Alliance wants to collaborate with officials to come up with a plan, taking legal action would likely be their next step.

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced a blueprint for gyms to reopen after thousands of owners filed a class-action lawsuit.

"I've been hearing from business owners around the city that they want to go to court," Rigie said. "This is our attempt to get a plan ASAP for reopening indoors. And we will see what happens or next steps."

While it's difficult to try to predict how many customers will want to dine outside later in the year or whether New Yorkers will be ready to partake in indoor dining, restaurant owners have cause for concern.

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New York City Hospitality Alliance survey found that 83 percent of 471 bars and restaurants did not pay full rent in July and 37% paid no rent at all.

There is some hope of help, however.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed the Restaurants Act last week, deepening support for a bipartisan $120 billion grant program for independent restaurants.