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Starving New York City’s Restaurants

Dining on St. Mark's Place in the East Village
Outdoor dining in New York City's East Village, Sept. 1, 2020. Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

For the past decade or more, nearly all my visits to New York City have involved seeing a sports event or Broadway show, dining at a restaurant, or visiting my kids.

My children are still available to entertain me. The same can’t be said for the city’s theaters, arenas and stadiums. They have been either completely dark (as is the case on the formerly Great White Way) or converted to open-air television studios. These are necessary and appropriate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged and traumatized the city last spring.

But pity the city’s poor restaurateurs and their employees. Alone among dining establishments in the Northeast, right now they cannot offer even the most limited indoor on-premises dining. Many have been shuttered since March, some permanently. The rest have struggled to survive on home delivery, carryout and – since June – a limited amount of outdoor seating.

The window for this outdoor improvisation will stay open for at least a few weeks to come. The lower humidity and milder temperatures that accompany the early stages of New York’s autumn may even help for a while. But inevitably those cold fronts will get colder, the damp winds off the Atlantic will cut deeper, and earlier darkness – combined with the city’s noticeable rise in violent crime – will encourage more people to stay home.

For months, proprietors have pleaded with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow at least the same indoor dining that he permits in the rest of the state. The city’s infection rate and hospital caseloads are not significantly different from those in surrounding suburbs, where restaurant dining rooms are open. Until yesterday, the governor was a profile in intransigence. Then he seemed to realize that allowing the city’s eateries to avoid a total and totally needless shutdown was the least he could do.

Cuomo proceeded to do exactly that – the least he could do. The governor announced that restaurants in the five boroughs will finally be allowed to reopen their dining rooms – but not until Sept. 30. This gives them three weeks to appreciate his magnanimity before turning their attention to more mundane matters, like paying the rent. Not that they will be unduly burdened with generating revenue, since the city’s indoor dining will be limited to 25% of capacity. The rest of the state has had restaurants operating at 50%, subject to social distancing, for months.

The governor’s behavior toward his state’s financial and cultural powerhouse continues to look vengeful, personal and perhaps politically calculating. None of this comes as a surprise to those familiar with Cuomo’s governing style.

The governor openly loathes New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He has taken almost every opportunity to undercut, overrule and humiliate the mayor since the new coronavirus first appeared in the state. Whether the issue was locking down or opening up, Cuomo has made it clear that nothing happens in New York City without his say-so. The exception: when whatever happens is politically embarrassing, such as the looting and vandalism that accompanied some of the protest marches in the city early in the summer. Cuomo is content to let the mayor own those.

Cuomo is neither stupid nor inarticulate. So it was notable when he made nonsensical pronouncements about keeping the city’s dining rooms shuttered, citing doubts about local officials’ ability to enforce occupancy limits, social distancing requirements or other restrictions. He made those arguments even as he permitted indoor dining, subject to restrictions, in every one of New York’s 57 counties outside the city. You can eat inside from NYC-adjacent suburban Westchester and Nassau, to urban Erie (which includes Buffalo) and remote St. Lawrence on the Canadian border. Cuomo’s position was that de Blasio’s government was singularly incapable of monitoring restaurant activity, although everything else, from office buildings to hospitals, could function. Presumably this is why he plans to keep the city’s eateries on a tighter leash as autumn proceeds.

Cuomo’s wariness of City Hall may be rooted as much in ancient political history as modern pandemic science. His father, Mario Cuomo, lost the Democratic mayoral primary in 1977 to Ed Koch. It was a nasty campaign – one on which young Andrew Cuomo worked – that included posters spread across Queens urging residents to “vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” (There was some speculation about the unmarried Koch, who declined to discuss his sexual orientation publicly at the time.)

In 1982, Koch and the elder Cuomo squared off again in a Democratic primary, this time for governor. Mario Cuomo won that contest and went on to serve three terms in Albany. His son is now about halfway through his own third term.

De Blasio, who made a short-lived bid for president in this year’s race, will be term limited after 2021. If Cuomo wants a fourth term, he will have to run again in 2022. Undercutting de Blasio may be personal for Cuomo; it may be political, an effort to kneecap a potential challenger. Or these may be one and the same to someone with the New York governor’s temperament and pedigree.

Cuomo’s motive makes no difference to the city’s restaurant industry, which is caught in the governor’s power play. A coalition of restaurants has gone to court, seeking permission to open at least 50% of their indoor capacity, along with $2 billion in compensation. A survey by the New York State Restaurant Association, reported by CNN, said nearly two-thirds of the state’s restaurant owners do not believe they can stay in business past January. Maybe a limited reopening of city dining rooms will move that needle, but I doubt it will move by very much.

It is not only the restaurants, and their workers, that Cuomo is patiently starving to death. Many of the city’s neighborhoods and commercial strips depend on the business that the dining establishments attract. In the Bronx, the Belmont neighborhood draws big crowds to an outer-borough version of Little Italy along Arthur Avenue. In Queens, a vast assortment of Asian eateries cluster in a Flushing neighborhood that eclipses Manhattan’s better-known Chinatown. The maritime communities of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and City Island in the Bronx feel more like New England than Manhattan, but they are subject to the city’s restrictions. Staten Islanders can practically toss a rock and have it land in New Jersey. They have to follow it over the water if they want to dine indoors before the end of this month.

Then there are the Manhattan office towers, standing more or less empty, even though officially they are open for business. It is hard enough to coax remote workers back to their offices. If you take away the possibility of getting together with a client or co-worker for lunch, why bother making the trek? Workers may as well continue to meet via Zoom from home.

Whether out of stubbornness or spite, Cuomo is starving not only the restaurant trade, but the rest of the city along with it. Long after the pandemic ends, I will probably have a lot fewer reasons to visit New York.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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