Restaurants get the OK for more customers, but industry survey reveals little optimism

Photo courtesy of Libreshot

As eligible residents throughout the state receive their first doses of COVID vaccine, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is lifting capacity restrictions on New York restaurants outside of New York City starting March 19, but restaurants say they’re still struggling to recover from their losses.

“Our fight in the war against COVID-19 continues, but we are encouraged by the decrease in infection and hospitalization rates and the rise in vaccinations,” Governor Cuomo said.

Cuomo has been gradually lifting restrictions on restaurants over the past three months in accordance with the decreasing number of COVID cases and deaths in New York state. “The numbers are a reflection of our actions and when we work together, we will see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Data from the Governor’s Office shows 4,789 patients are hospitalized statewide as of March 8, the state’s lowest numbers since December 6. Additionally, the number of patients in intensive care units have fallen below 1000 for the first time since December 9.

In January, Cuomo announced a limited reopening of New York City restaurants for indoor dining which began February 12.

The lifting of restrictions also follows the increase in eligibility throughout the state for those who can receive the vaccine. As of March 9, New York state has distributed nearly 5.5 million doses of the vaccine. 

Beginning March 19, restaurants outside of New York city’s five boroughs will be able to seat 75 percent of their full capacity. New York City restaurants will be able to seat 50 percent of their full capacity by March 19.

Cuomo is coordinating the reopening with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to minimize travel across state borders for dining and recreation.

Cuomo advised New Yorkes to remain vigilant despite the apparent “light at the end of the tunnel.” He remains hopeful for New York as the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine begins distribution, “we have never been closer to defeating this beast once and for all.” However, local restaurants are not on the same page.

A recent survey of New York restaurants conducted in February by the New York State Restaurant Association shows they are holding on by a thread. The survey shows 92% of restaurants had a lower total dollar sales volume in January 2021 compared to January 2020.

Overall, sales were down 44 percent between January 2020 and January 2021.

Despite the green light to increase capacity, most restaurant operators do not expect business conditions to improve during the next several weeks. 

Only 19 percent of New York operators expect their sales in February and March to be higher than it was in January. A total of 46 percent of operators think their sales will decline in February and March from January’s levels.

“Despite recovery and reopening efforts, the restaurant industry continues to struggle. The effects of the past year will undoubtedly have a lasting impact, and we continue to hear the tough circumstances facing New York operators,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of NYSRA. “New York has taken steps to reopen the economy, a welcomed and encouraging effort, but that alone cannot supplant financial assistance.”

On the jobs front, the survey found employment throughout the restaurant industry remains far below normal levels. Deteriorating business conditions led to additional job losses in recent weeks, with 54 percent of New York operators saying they laid off or furloughed employees in December or January.

Ninety-two percent of New York operators say their current staffing level is lower than what it would normally be in the absence of COVID-19. Sixty-four percent of operators are currently more than 20 percent below normal staffing levels.

Only 17 percent of New York operators expect their restaurant’s staffing levels to be higher in February and March than it was in January. Fourteen percent of operators expect their staffing levels to decline in February and March.

“New York restaurants are embedded in the fabric of their communities and are integral to local economies. They have opened their spaces to others struggling during the pandemic and continue to charge ahead in the face of perilous circumstances,” Fleischut added. “We must take action to ensure restaurant businesses are able to survive the next year.”