Indoor dining will shut down in New York City again

The move comes as officials try to halt the escalation of a second wave of the coronavirus and avoid a broader shutdown. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Indoor dining will once again be barred in New York City restaurants starting next Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday (Dec 11), a significant reversal of the city's reopening that comes as officials try to halt the escalation of a second wave of the coronavirus and avoid a broader shutdown.

The decision, which Mr Cuomo earlier this week suggested was all but certain, is a crushing blow to the city's restaurant industry, a vital economic pillar that has been struggling all year in the face of pandemic restrictions and a national recession.

Mr Cuomo acknowledged the hardship his decision was likely to cause and once more called on federal lawmakers to provide relief to the hospitality industry. Congressional leaders have so far failed to reach an agreement on a new economic stimulus package.

Even as he announced the new restriction, the governor provided data that showed restaurants and bars were likely not the primary driver of new cases in the state, lagging far behind private gatherings.

Still, the governor portrayed the end of indoor dining in New York City as necessary, given new federal guidance, an increasing rate of virus transmission and the city's population density. Mr Cuomo has warned that an anticipated surge in cases this winter threatens to overwhelm the medical system. Over the last month, while preparations have begun to distribute the first doses of a vaccine, virus-related hospitalisations in the state have more than tripled.

The governor said on Friday that the city was on a trajectory to hit 90 per cent of its hospital capacity, at which point he would close down all non-essential businesses. He described the prohibition on indoor dining as an attempt to avoid such a move.

Restaurants and bars, Mr Cuomo said, are "one of the few areas that we think we can actually make a difference".

The order came as the 21 Club in Manhattan appeared to become the latest iconic New York City restaurant to succumb to the pandemic. In a notice filed on Wednesday with the state's labor department, the restaurant - a favorite of President Donald Trump - said it would "indefinitely" cease its operations and lay off all of its employees in March.

In a statement, the restaurant's owners said that the pandemic, and an anticipated long recovery, made it unfeasible to reopen the 21 Club "in its current form for the foreseeable future". But the owners said they hope to reopen at some point, and are exploring long-term options, according to the statement.

The restaurant, which opened as a speakeasy during Prohibition, first closed and laid off employees on March 16, when the governor ordered non-essential businesses in the state to shut down. Though officials eventually permitted outdoor dining and limited indoor dining, the 21 Club remained closed to customers.

President of Local 100 of Unite Here Bill Granfield, the union representing the restaurant's workers, said the union was hopeful that the restaurant might one day reopen in some fashion.

Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance Andrew Rigie said in a statement that the governor's decision "is at odds with the state's own data that's been presented as driving these decisions, and it will be the last straw for countless more restaurants and jobs".

He also called for more economic support for struggling restaurants and bars, saying the end of indoor dining would "severely jeopardise" their survival.

For months, New York City's restaurant owners have warned that their businesses, many of which operate on tight margins in the best of times, are on the edge of financial collapse. Thousands of employees, many of them low-wage workers, have been laid off since March, and their jobs have yet to fully return.

The industry's anxieties are only mounting as winter approaches and frigid temperatures threaten to deter customers from dining outdoors. Industry groups have called repeatedly for federal or state financial assistance, with restaurant and bar owners watching nervously as stimulus talks drag on in Washington.

The governor's announcement came after weeks of shifting messages on indoor dining, which resumed in New York City only at the end of September.

As virus cases rose across the state this autumn, Mr Cuomo hesitated to impose the widespread restrictions that he implemented in March, when he limited restaurants and bars to takeout and delivery.

In October, the governor said he would shutter indoor dining only in the hardest-hit areas in the state: so-called microclusters. He briefly changed course in late November, saying he would shut down indoor dining citywide if the seven-day average test positivity rate hit 3 per cent. He walked back that statement about a week later.

Mr Cuomo and his aides have said that the state's approach has changed to follow evolving guidance from epidemiologists.

Until this week, the governor had focused much of his attention on parties and other indoor gatherings and had downplayed the risks of indoor dining, even as growing evidence suggested it was a significant source of the virus' spread.

But Monday, Mr Cuomo had warned that he would curb indoor dining in regions where hospitalisations did not stabilise, citing recommendations from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that described eating at indoor restaurants as a "particularly high-risk" activity.

Then on Friday, Mr Cuomo said that contact tracing data showed that restaurants and bars were the fifth main source of new infections in the state, well behind household and social gatherings. The data is based only on those who give a response to contact tracers and does not capture every infection in the state, officials have said.

Of 46,000 cases between September and November, 1.43 per cent could be linked to restaurants and bars, compared to 73.84 per cent connected to private gatherings and 7.81 per cent tied to the health care system, the second-largest source.

The governor acknowledged the disparity but said the state was limited in how it could address such gatherings and other sources of infection.

"We're doing everything we can," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.