The Threat of the Pandemic on the City and its Restaurants

Article By Diana Gilday

Outdoor dining on Bell Boulevard in Bayside on a Friday night (photo taken by Diana Gilday)
Outdoor dining on Bell Boulevard in Bayside on a Friday night (photo taken by Diana Gilday)

With New York City starting to return to normal, the Coronavirus might be claiming its newest

victim, the NYC restaurant industry.

 

Since the pandemic caused a statewide shut down in mid-March, NYC restaurants have not been

allowed to have diners inside. This changed with an announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo

on Sept. 9. He announced indoor dining could reopen at 25% capacity on Sept. 30, with a

number of new guidelines.

 

“Indoor dining is essential for the future of our restaurant industry, especially as the cold weather

approaches,” said city council speaker Corey Johnson “It is good news that both state and city

public health officials have determined restaurants can reopen safely indoors at limited capacity

with health precautions in place. I look forward to working on more ways to help restaurants and

small businesses during this difficult time.”

 

Both the Mayor’s office and the Governor’s office were both reached out to and have not given a

comment at time of publishing.

 

The announcement came eight days after 350 NYC restaurants filed a $2 billion class action

lawsuit against the city and the state which called for them to allow the restaurants to open at

50% capacity indoors.

 

“At this point, it’s like, you know, it’s an insult, “ said Tina Oppedisano, owner of Il Bacco in

Little Neck and the face of the lawsuit. “What bothers me the most, is that the governor

definitely just threw out 25% to shut everybody up. And it actually worked. And that’s what

annoys me the most right now is 25%, especially the fact that he came out with that, like eight

days after we filed the lawsuit and caused a commotion. So, basically, that tells me if we had

filed the lawsuit sooner, you know, maybe in the beginning of August, he would have thrown us

a bone then.”

 

Oppedisano was asked to champion the lawsuit due to her proximity to Long Island, which has

been open for indoor dining at 50% capacity since June 22.

 

“The lack of indoor dining affected us, I mean, we’ve lost a tremendous amount of money being

that we haven’t been able to open indoor dining, you know, since March,” said Oppedisano. “In

the beginning, everybody understood, everybody was on board, because it was about being

careful and being safe and protecting yourself and your neighbor. And then as the months

progressed, you have all these businesses that were slowly opening, other restaurants that are

open, and we were just kind of left in the dark. James, the attorney on the case, he is the one that

came to us and asked if we wanted to be the leading plaintiff in this lawsuit, and we said,

‘Absolutely, we have nothing to hide, we have nothing we should be scared of.’”

 

Tina Oppedisano announcing the lawsuit against the city and state governments (image via
Oppedisano on Instagram)

 

Il Bacco is one of the many restaurants who struggled due to the no indoor dining rule. Another

restaurant is one of the oldest family owned restaurants in NYC, London Lennies in Woodhaven,

who was one of the 350 restaurants who co-filed the suit.

 

“They need to let us get back to business,” said Les Barnes, owner of the London Lennies. “They

need to let us do an honest day’s work and follow the rules and follow the regulations and keep

everybody safe and healthy. We all want that for our customers and our staff, which is why I

closed for three months, because I’m like two miles from the center of the pandemic. I wasn’t

putting myself or my staff, or my customers in danger, we closed for three solid months from the

end of March, we didn’t open up till the end of June.”

 

In that time, Barnes had to let go of 40 employees. He wasn’t the only one who had to let go of

staff. Due to the pandemic, Il Bacco had to make all of their employees part time, while still

letting go a number of their staff.

 

Another restaurant that had to let go of staff during this time was the oldest pizzeria in the United

States, Lombardids in Manhattan.

 

John Brescio, the owner of Lombardis said that he had to let go of almost all his staff, going

from 45 employees down to six.

 

The storefront from Lombardi’s (image via Wikipedia)

 

At an Aug. 24 press briefing, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio said, “When we talk about schools, this

is something that is mandated for our children to get an education for free and a quality

education. We know that we are struggling with an all remote format to give kids what they need

and deserve. So we have an imperative, legal imperative, moral imperative, educational

imperative to give kids the best education we can.We know that means having at least some time

in-person, versus indoor dining, which is obviously a very optional activity.”

 

What DeBlasio failed to mention however, according to Barnes, is who the restaurant industry

employs.

 

“Blasio said, I’m not worried about the people who can afford to eat out. I worry about the

people who can’t afford to eat out,” said Barnes. “Well you know something, the people who

can’t afford to eat out are the people that I employ.”

 

Besides employing the working class, the restaurant industry is also the biggest employer of

minorities compared to any other industry. According to a June 2020 Forbes article, restaurant

industry employees are 47% minorities, compared to the national average of 36%.

“We employ minorities, we employ women, we employ high school kids,” said Barnes. “There’s

all these great things that the restaurant business does, and the state and the city are preventing us

from even keeping our full time people employed. My people don’t want unemployment. They

want to come and they want to work for an honest day’s living, and they want to make their

money. They want to pay their taxes. They want to pay their rent. They want to pay their bills

and DeBlasio and Cuomo, because public health concerns, are preventing anybody from doing

this.”

 

Money has been a major issue for city restaurants, with the city and the state providing nothing

in terms of relief. There was however, relief from the federal government.

“We did receive PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) 100%. And yes, if we didn’t, it really would

have you know, it really would have been tough,” said Oppedisano.

Both Barnes and Brescio share the same sentiments. Barnes went as far to say that, “If it wasn’t

for PPP money, which has nothing to do with the city, and nothing to do with the state, if it

wasn’t for that we’d all be closed.”

 

The state government released a 16-page document of guidelines that NYC restaurants have to

comply with when opening. These include temperature checks, tables being six feet apart, masks

mandatory except while eating, contact tracing, no bar service and a new air filtration system.

These guidelines only apply to the five boroughs.

 

Gov. Cuomo has also created a task force of 400 people to “crack down” on these restaurants and

make sure they are following the guidelines. London Lennies has already been inspected three

times and Barnes claims he felt threatened everytime.

 

“I wouldn’t say they want us to fail. But they’re going to make us fail, restaurants will fail,”said

Barnes.

 

The storefront of London Lennies (image via QNS.com)

What also only applied to the five boroughs was the complete reliance on outdoor dining since

mid-June. While being helpful, outdoor dining did have its downsides.

 

“We’re in a very fortunate situation where we do have a rooftop garden with a retractable roof,”

said Oppedisano. “But I mean, a lot of times it was very hot. Nobody wants to eat in the heat.

They want to eat inside in the air conditioner. When it rains, that’s another big thing. You know,

we have another restaurant on Bell Boulevard, Trattoria 35, and every time it rains, it was a

disaster because all they have is a little tent in the parking lot. It was very difficult. Nonetheless,

it’s very difficult for your staff to serve food outside. They’re hot. They’re sweating. They’re

moving around. It was just, it was a very long summer.”

 

Trattoria 35 after Tropical Storm Isais on July 30 (Image via Bayside LiveTV taken by Diana
Gilday)

 

Some restaurants weren’t as lucky in terms of outdoor dining, including Lombardi’s, which is

located in Manhattan. With no access to a rooftop garden, they were only able to have seven

tables outside, which is 10% of their regular capacity.

 

“We’re trying our best,” said Brescio. “We make nice and little changes. And we’ll keep going as

long as we can. That’s all.”

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