Restaurant owners have borne the brunt of COVID restrictions during the pandemic — and very few cities have seen more severe and inconsistent new regulations than New York City.
Now, more New York City restaurant owners are publicly pointing out the lack of consistency in the dining shutdown policies in a city where — according to the governor's own data — bars and restaurants are responsible for just 1.43% of the virus' spread.
The contradictions these businesses are facing as New York governmental agencies cannot get their orders straight have made life nearly impossible for entrepreneurs seeking just to stay afloat.
What are the restaurants doing?
After getting completely shut down last spring, New York City restaurants began slowly reopening with limited crowds over the summer and early fall. To cope with diminished indoor seating options, eateries created outdoor dining areas, which worked fairly well as long as the weather cooperated.
On Friday, Dec. 11, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) declared that all indoor dining in the city would have to close as the virus was surging again. Shortly after the governor issued his edict, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) threatened that if people didn't get the virus under control, the city could be facing a "full shutdown."
And once again, Gotham eateries got creative and made major investments in attempts to expand outdoor dining and offer more takeout and delivery options.
Then on Thursday, the city issued a new "COVID-19 Dining Update" for restaurants, the New York Post reported. Included in that update was a ban on restaurant employees eating inside the restaurants they work for during their breaks.
The city also added a new requirement for nighttime takeout — no more in-person orders, even if conducted outdoors. All such orders must now be placed via online or telephone. Also, orders can be picked up inside the eatery only before 10 p.m. — after that it's curbside only.
But the most controversial item on the COVID update was the declaration that patrons at a restaurant's outdoor dining area could not use the establishment's indoor restrooms. What made the new order even more strikingly egregious was the fact that New York was in the middle of serious winter weather with 30-degree temperatures and significant snowfall.
However, the Post reported, after significant pushback, the state reversed its bathroom ban.
The government can't get its edicts straight
The Post's Karol Markowicz has been watching the impact of government edicts on the Big Apple — from businesses to education to families — and her piece Monday revealed some of the conflicting standards city eateries are facing with Cuomo's new COVID orders that target New York City restaurants.
Markowicz interviewed restaurant owners in the Big Apple who are attempting to navigate the new regulations, and she determined that the "new city diktats are just the latest serving of hell dished out to restaurateurs and their workers by a political class that continues to receive regular paychecks courtesy of taxpayers."
One owner, Tina Plagos, who owns three establishments, said she hasn't turned a profit in 10 months.
"We haven't had a profit since February and have bought air purifiers, heaters, a ton of extra cleaning supplies, masks, hand sanitizer and have spent thousands to build and rebuild the outdoor seating area," she told Markowicz.
But according to Plagos, what is really maddening about the new COVID edicts is that apparently restaurants are dangerous only if they are located within the boundaries of New York City.
"In Long Island, customers can sit and eat at the bar six feet apart, but in New York City, no one is allowed near the bar," Plagos said. "You can't order a drink at the bar, let alone eat at the bar."
Rafi Hasid, another multi-location restaurant owner, told Markowicz he has spent at least $10,000 per site to keep up with the ongoing and ever-shifting regulations.
But worst of all, the government continues to contradict itself, as agencies give conflicting messages on what is allowed and what is not for outdoor dining.
"In the beginning, they said they're going to allow propane heaters. But then they said you can't have them on the street side or on the outside of the sidewalk," Hasid said. "Then they said you can't keep the propane tanks on your property and must store them at a different location every night. So that was a wasted purchase."
And heaters weren't the only area he saw major conflicting messages from officials.
"We capsuled the outdoor seating, so every table has its own personal area," he said. "The Health Department said it's good. Then the Fire Department said we need a door, and it should be closed. Then yesterday, we got an e-mail from the city that the door can't be closed, because the space needs to be open on two sides. We keep investing money but what's the criteria to open indoor dining again? We have no idea."
Restaurant owners continue to cry for help, asking a city and state that apparently won't listen.
"Restaurants are mainly family-owned and made up of mainly minorities," Plagos told Markowicz. "They aren't corporate America. We were living the American dream of working hard and taking care of our families, and now they took that right away from us."