Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he would release a plan for New York City restaurants by the end of the week, which could usher in a return to indoor dining at 25% capacity.
“I fully understand how difficult it is that they’re closed — not just for the restaurants but all the people who are employed there,” Cuomo said at his Jan. 27 press briefing in Albany. “On the flip side is how fast this virus can take off, but we’ll have a plan for New York City restaurants by the end of the week.”
Cuomo plans to meet with health officials, Mayor Bill de Blasio, restaurant leaders, and other local stakeholders to work out a scheme for eateries in the Five Boroughs, which have been restricted to outdoor dining since mid-December, when municipal and state governments tried to stem a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the holidays.
The announcement comes as dozens of restaurants have filed lawsuits against Cuomo in recent days and weeks arguing that the ban on indoor dining in the city while still allowing it in the rest of the state violated their civil and Constitutional rights.
A group of 70 restaurants and bars — many of them in North Brooklyn — sued Cuomo in Manhattan federal court, alleging the governor’s executive orders for indoor dining violated their civil rights and their constitutional rights for due process and equal protection under the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
In December, Williamsburg diner Kellogg’s and Manhattan restaurant Toscana also sued the state claiming his executive orders were unconstitutional for similar reasons.
The governor said he was aware of the lawsuits, but accused some businesses of trying to get special treatment, even though he argued it was in the state’s best interest to bring back local restaurants and their sales tax revenues.
“Everyone understand the concept of restrictions, just not as it applies to them, frankly. It always makes sense when it’s someone else, but when it applies to their business, no,” Cuomo said. “The state has an economic interest in opening the restaurants, that’s sales tax revenue for the state and I’m begging, provoking, prodding the federal government for $15 billion. I also want to get our revenues back up and opening up restaurants, opening up businesses, generates more revenue which means we’re less dependent on the federal aid.”
He said that officials were trying to figure out whether it made sense to return to quarter-capacity indoor dining in the Big Apple, but declined to lift the 10 pm curfew for businesses, saying a later mandatory closure hour could lead to bigger crowds.
The executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance welcomed Cuomo’s plans, but called on him to lift limits further than 25 percent, given that restaurants outside the city can still open up indoors at 50 percent occupancy, even though COVID positivity rates on Long Island and in some upstate counties are higher.
“We’re happy that Governor Cuomo heard the voice of New York City’s decimated restaurant industry and we look forward to working towards a plan that hopefully reopens indoor dining soon,” Rigie said in a statement. “Because New York City has lower infection and hospitalization rates than nearly all counties in the rest of the state where indoor dining is open at 50% occupancy, our city’s restaurants must be treated equitably and reopened safely. Highly regulated, limited occupancy indoor dining has been a minor factor for virus transmission and full shutdowns have exacerbated the current economic crisis, which has permanently shuttered thousands of restaurants and bars and put over 140,000 people out of work in our city.”
Cuomo announced the possible reopening plans as he lifted some restrictions across the state amid declining coronavirus infection following a holiday spike.
Statewide positivity rate was 5.44% across a seven-day average, compared to a peak of almost 8 percent following the holidays.
The newest positivity rate for the city was 5.39%, varying from a worrisome high of 6.9% in the Bronx down to 3.36% in Manhattan.
Hospitalizations dipped slightly to 8,771 across the state, while 170 people died from the virus as of Tuesday.
The governor lifted all Orange Zone and Yellow Zone restrictions across the state except for a handful of areas that will remain in the Yellow Zone, including two parts of the Bronx — going from Mott Haven north along the Harlem River to Kingsbridge Heights and east to Soundview — along with Queens — from Ditmars Steinway to Flushing, Washington Heights, and Newburgh upstate.
These areas will still have to adhere to stricter limits, such as a 25 people maximum for gatherings, 50 percent capacity at houses of worship, a four-person maximum per table at bars and restaurants, and 20 percent weekly testing of in-person students and faculty at schools.
While the governor declared the holiday spike over, he warned that further COVID-19 waves could still come with new variants emerging in Brazil and South Africa.
He added that hospitals needed to fully vaccinate their staff, with some facilities still struggling to inoculate all of their workers, in order to avoid a shortfall in capacity.
In the city, 73% of hospital staff have gotten the shot, however the rates vary widely between facilities — sometimes even within the same system.
For example the lowest rate of vaccinations was measured at the city’s Health + Hospitals Harlem Hospital Center at 37.4%, compared to 100% at H+H’s Woodhull Hospital.
“If you’re going to see a hospital run out of capacity, it’s going to be these hospitals where the staff have been vaccinated at a lower percentage,” he said.