New York City’s first blizzard of the season whipped in on a Wednesday evening in mid-December. Earlier in the day, the air had had that damp chill that even RealFeel can’t get right; people wedged through it with lowered foreheads and solstice scowls. All over town, restaurant owners and managers were making their own calculations. Open up just for lunch? Close until the weekend? Shut down indefinitely, or even for good? No matter how you ran the numbers, the outlook was dire. It encapsulated, in miniature, the extinction threat facing them all.
Two days earlier, New York State, citing a steepening of the covid curve, had banned indoor dining again, after having permitted it for ten weeks, at twenty-five-per-cent capacity. Justifiable as the decision was in epidemiological terms, the timing seemed cruel, what with a forecast of gale-force winds and a foot of snow. In anticipation of the storm, the city had ordered restaurants to shut down outdoor dining that afternoon by 2 p.m. As for the dining structures that restaurateurs in all five boroughs had erected on the street—the sheds, tents, lean-tos, stables, barns, bubbles, tepees, and yurts, as well as the heating appliances, the planters and plastic flowers, the canopies of fairy lights and power cords, the wooden gangways and plexiglass dividers—no one really knew for sure what was allowed and what wasn’t, in the event of snow. Were they required to dismantle everything?
For months, restaurants had endured a baffling crossfire of changing rules and regulations, from a gantlet of city and state agencies. That week, the Mayor’s counsel had issued a memo stating that, under the Governor’s new indoor-dining ban, patrons dining outside were prohibited from going inside to use the rest room, and restaurant workers were effectively not allowed to take their staff meals anywhere but the kitchen. An outcry ensued, and the state insisted that it had made no such prohibitions. This was just another “never mind.”
“It has become increasingly clear that the government is run by a bunch of clowns,” Eric Sze, the owner of 886, a Taiwanese restaurant on St. Marks Place, said recently. “Have they never worked in a restaurant? Isn’t that one of the first things you should do as a normal human being?”
It may be, during this COVID year, that no one should be dining at restaurants at all, outside or inside. The arguments over this question swirl like airborne droplets. Epidemiologists themselves, in polls, say that they are disinclined to eat out. But, regardless of what makes the most sense from a public-health perspective, restaurants must either scramble to survive or go out of business. Or they can do both, as many already have…