Restaurant owners say small changes can help them survive the winter

Legislative Gazette photo by Lauren Mulvey
Michael Beck owner of P&Gs bar and restaurant in New Paltz, NY. Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators are lifting some coronavirus restrictions and drafting legislation to help the state’s struggling restaurant industry.”

As the U.S. coronavirus death toll passes 400,000, suffering New York restaurants are finally receiving the support they’ve needed from Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans with advocacy from New York State Restaurant Association.

New York’s restaurants were struggling prior to the onset of winter. But now, during the coldest months of the year, restaurant goers are becoming few and far between, because of heavy indoor dining restrictions and safety concerns.

“Business is down, close to 70 percent” says Michael Beck, owner of P&Gs in the village of New Paltz in Ulster County, a pub restaurant that according to Beck is “relatively busy during normal times.”

Many restaurants statewide are in similar positions, having to completely alter their services to accommodate COVID-19 precautions. The Office of the New York State Comptroller reported that “by August 2020, employment in the restaurant industry was only 55% of what it was in February 2020,” right before the first cases of COVID-19 were detected.

Under state mandated restrictions that change frequently and can vary from one zip code to the next, restaurants have endured periods of complete shutdown and low profit since March of 2020, and many cannot afford another potential closing in 2021.

Yet the COVID death toll and case numbers continue to reach all-time highs nationally. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicts a rise in death toll to over 500,000 cases by February 13 of this year.

But with decreased profits, these businesses are looking to reinvigorate their industry in 2021. “We need to reopen the economy or there will be nothing left to reopen,” says New York State Restaurant Association CEO, Melissa Fleischut.

The New York State Restaurant Association, or NYSRA, is a trade association with chapters stretching from Long Island to Western New York. They are known for their support for the restaurant industry through networking, training and development resources, and government advocacy.

NYSRA members have been struggling to keep doors open during the pandemic, especially those in New York City. “The partial lifeline of limited indoor dining has been completely cut off for New York City” Fleischut added.

Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have placed a variety of restrictions on restaurants to help slow the spread of the virus. These restrictions included a curfew for restaurants cutting services 10:00 pm, limited capacity for restaurants in various zones depending on case numbers. When the holiday season drove case numbers up, he called for a complete elimination of indoor dining for NYC restaurants.

“Any help will go a long way toward the long term survival of many of our favorite restaurants,” Fleischut said.

The association has been calling for an extension of the state’s business curfew from 10:00 pm to midnight, and for reestablishing indoor dining in New York City, following the lead of neighboring states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania which have reopened indoor dining and extended curfews.

New York restaurant owners say they are up to the challenge. Restaurant owner, Michael Beck said, “we have taken tremendous measures,” and believes the stop of the spread is now up to the public, “it’s about whether the people that go out understand the rules.”

Extending the curfew from 10 p.m. to midnight would provide enough additional revenue to survive the winter.

“Staying open beyond 10 doesn’t mean all the rules are going to go away,” he adds. Beck has even hired new staff to monitor customers making sure they are following safety guidelines. He is ready to follow any guidelines that will allow his business to remain open safely.

Fleischut, echoes Beck telling The Legislative Gazette, “We have rules in place until 10:00 pm and they would still need to be followed between 10:00 p.m. and midnight.”

Fleischut and NYSRA have worked to ensure that restaurants throughout the state are getting the support they need from the association over the past year through webinars and meetings that detail required safety guidelines.

“There hasn’t been any evidence to indicate that there’s a direct correlation between restaurants being open and the numbers of cases increasing,” said Fleischut. She too believes that restaurants are doing what they can saying “it’s really up to individuals and personal behavior now.”

In response to NYSRA’s request, New York Senate Republicans have released a package of legislation to aid the restaurant and hospitality industry. Those who contributed to the bill are Senators George Borello, Mike Martucci, Joseph Griffo, Daphne Jordan, Mario Mattera, Peter Oberacker, and Pam Helming.

Senator Borrello, who sponsored the bill, expressed frustration with Cuomo’s restrictive mandates. “His executive authority has put extremely damaging and burdensome restrictions on the industry,” said Borrello.

One bill in the package would exempt struggling small businesses from higher unemployment insurance rates. Another bill provides additional time for payment of monthly sales and payroll, along with business and property taxes.

Additional bills in the legislation include, 30-day food and drink sales tax exemption, interest-free loans and lines of credit for small businesses, year long extensions on the liquor license renewals, and a 90 day grace period for the payment of fees or penalties due to state and local agencies.

In a separate press release, Senator Martucci detailed his involvement in the legislation with his introduction of a bill that is meant to “redirect any fines and fees collected by the State Liquor Authority from establishments in the hospitality industry into a Small Business Relief Fund.”

Those behind the legislation hope that, for the moment, it will help the state’s restaurants and hospitality businesses get back on their feet.

Cuomo responded to the restaurant industry’s call for help last week during a press event at Roswell Park in Buffalo. He agreed to begin to lift restrictions in state cluster zones after observing a decrease in COVID-19 cases across the state. However, these changes still did not allow indoor dining for NYC establishments.

Though these changes may give restaurants owners hope for their industry, Cuomo warned “we have been down this road before and the road has curves, so please just be smart.”

“Don’t get cocky with COVID. This beast changes on us all the time,” he added.

Fleischut thanked Cuomo for responding to the industry’s need, but continued to push for lifts on restrictions. “We appeal once again to the Governor to consider extending the curfew to midnight,” said Fleischut.

A decision on lifting indoor dining restrictions in NYC came Friday, January 29 after brief drops in case numbers were seen across formerly dangerous zones. Cuomo announced NYC restaurants could provide indoor dining at a limited capacity of 25% starting on Valentine’s Day.

However, Cuomo remains firm on maintaining a curfew. Outside of the city, New York restaurants are allowed 50% capacity. As far as increasing capacities go, he remains straightforward, “if numbers get better, we will increase capacity.”

Despite these changes, Cuomo has promised to pivot should numbers in the state worsen. For the time being, Cuomo’s altered restrictions along with the Senate Republican’s new legislation should lighten the load for restaurants facing the worst this winter.