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“I Can’t Survive Until October”: NYC Restaurants Fear Delay to Indoor Dining

Editor’s Note: No city is more important to America’s economy than New York, and none has been hit harder by the coronavirus. “NYC Reopens” examines life in the capital of capitalism as the city takes its first halting steps toward a new normal.

It looks as if New Yorkers might have to wait a little longer to book a table inside their favorite restaurant.

As states across the U.S. experience an alarming surge of Covid-19 cases after reopening their bars and restaurants, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday that officials are now considering slowing down the restart of indoor dining in New York City.

“Around the country, a number of cities and states have been moving in the wrong direction,” de Blasio said. “We all love indoor dining, but we see problems with indoor dining.”

A delay would be another blow to the city’s beleaguered restaurant industry, which has been gearing up for weeks to reopen on July 6. Its roughly 27,000 establishments have struggled to survive on takeout food and drink orders and, starting last week, limited outdoor seating since the pandemic began.

Here’s what restaurateurs across the city had to say about the news.

Emil Stefanov, general manager at Boucherie in the West Village:

“Yes, all the restaurants will be be suffering, but safety and health comes first. You’ll have no business if you have no people to have business with. Everything else goes after that. So if they tell us they’re postponing the resumption of indoor dining, I won’t think how bad it is for my business, I’ll think about how bad the situation is getting. In New York, I feel safe with the leadership. If they feel that it’s not safe to go to Phase Three, then who am I to say no? Businesses will come back eventually. Safety of people comes first.”

Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Cobble Hill:

“We weren’t planning to open up in indoor dining even if approval went through, so we strongly agree. We don’t think NYC is ready just yet for indoor dining. We fortunately have front and back patios at our small bar, Leyenda, and have been making that work and offering to-go cocktails. It’s not great, but we’re surviving.

“Having folks pass through masked to get to the back patio or use the restrooms is one thing, but the thought of friends gathered at a table without masks seems like a risk we would not feel comfortable taking right now.”

Dan Kluger, chef-owner of Loring Place in Greenwich Village:

“I wouldn’t say I was psyched about this news. We just started to hire people back. Now we’re pissing them off because we’ve made offers to people who didn’t want to get off unemployment, where they’re making more money. But they said yes. I hired another manager, I hired back a sous chef to help us be ready for indoor dining. Made offers to cooks and porters and servers.

“I have no problem with the government saying we can’t reopen, but they can’t change the message the week before. I’m taking on more payroll than I need to. I can’t survive until October. I understand the reasons why, but no one is communicating properly. I’ll be lucky if I make $1,000 off of outdoor dining this week. That’s how discouraging it is.”

Hakan Swahn, owner of Aquavit, a two-star Michelin restaurant in midtown:

“Obviously, it’s a blow to us; we had been excited about the prospect of reopening and did a lot of planning. It’s been tough to survive and do the right thing. This would have been a huge help, not just for us, but for all restaurants in New York. We’re very unhappy about not being able to, at least in a little way, reopen. I hope it doesn’t go into effect. We had made offers to people to come back. To go back and say, ‘Sorry guys, it won’t happen,’ … Of course, we care about everyone’s health. But it’s a blow.”

Nate Adler, co-owner of Gertie in Williamsburg:

“The most important consideration right now is a potential second surge of infections coming to NYC, which would push many restaurants to a point of no return. With that in mind, I have always been of the opinion that a slower, more gradual reopening is the better way. Let’s stay the course, while the weather is warm enough to dine outside and until the virus is better contained. Opening restaurants indoors at 50% capacity has the potential to do more damage than good.”

George Vavilis, owner of Morning Star Cafe in midtown Manhattan:

“How much am I counting on Phase Three reopening and inside dining? Zero. I told all my employees, if it happens on July 6, that’s great, but chances are equally high it’s not going to happen then. How can I control that? There’s no way. So I need to count on what I can control. Up to last week, it was takeout and delivery that I could control. Then, it was putting the barriers in place last week, and making sure every guest is safe. When they tell me that Phase Three is happening, then I’ll start counting that in.

Read more: After Cuomo’s Threat, a St. Mark’s Bar Owner Responds

“Don’t get me wrong, that would be ideal, I want it to happen, but I don’t keep my hopes up. We have 60 seats inside, but even if we could use a quarter of that, that would be better than nothing. But safety comes first. I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want to get any of my guests sick.”

Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side and Lekka Burger in Tribeca:

“As a restaurant owner, I am incredibly uncomfortable with opening up my dining room, and I can’t, in good faith, put any of my employees at risk just so that I can bring in a few dollars. New York has done a good job with its long game in dealing with the virus, which will have been for nothing if we start to play the short game.”

Jeffrey Banks, who owns restaurants including Carmine’s and Virgil’s Real Barbecue in Times Square:

“The government shut down business for the safety of everyone. I respect that. Then, they declare that restaurants should open for takeout and delivery. But there were no rules for wearing masks, for keeping my staff out of dangerous conditions. And this was when people were scared and running their Amazon boxes through the dishwasher.

“Whatever we’re asked, we do. But how am I supposed to support the 1,300 people that got laid off? How can I get them back to work? I’m worried about people who work for me who are going to run out of unemployment.”

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World News

New Jersey Pausing July 2 Restart for Indoor Dining, Governor Says

Governor Phil Murphy said he would pause New Jersey’s plans to restart indoor dining on July 2, citing concerns about such a “sedentary” activity especially among “outlier” bars and restaurants not following social distancing.

This “brings me no joy to do this, but we have no choice,” Murphy said, pointing to both a national spike in Covid-19 cases and the lack of social distancing in New Jersey and New York City. No new date was scheduled for New Jersey restaurants to reopen, though casinos will do as planned on July 2, as will museums, libraries and arcades.

New Jersey indoor dining, with capacity caps and other restrictions, had been scheduled to restart four days before New York City was to do so. But New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday said skyrocketing cases in the South and West have prompted them to consider postponing dining’s return.

De Blasio cited surges of the virus in Texas, Florida and California as reasons to consider a slowdown in reopening restaurants, even at 50% capacity. The mayor said the city and state will make a decision within “the next few days,” as health officials are “paying attention to this lesson. We’re increasingly concerned.”

“Around the country, a number of cities and states have been moving in the wrong direction,” de Blasio said. “We all love indoor dining, but we see problems with indoor dining.”

City Failures

Cuomo expressed similar concerns during a Monday news briefing. But he also directed criticism at New York City leaders and residents, saying the most populous U.S. city has had problems enforcing social distancing as people congregate.

“There’s a lack of compliance with social distancing in New York City,” Cuomo said. “You can see the crowds in front of bars. You can see the crowds on street corners. It is undeniable. It’s the responsibility of citizens. It’s also the responsibility of local government.”

The city’s second phase of reopening has permitted more than 5,000 restaurants to set up outdoor dining on sidewalks, patios and curb-side parking spaces, but the limited seating comes nowhere close to returning the industry to where it stood before the Covid-19 pandemic forced a citywide shutdown in March.

Air-Conditioning Threat

Studies have found the virus spreads more easily indoors and particularly among diners in restaurants. Epidemiologists have said that in some restaurants, the virus has been transmitted as it moves through an interior space via air conditioning or cooling fans.

Cuomo agreed with de Blasio that viral outbreaks continuing in 32 states are alarming and provide a good reason to slow down the city’s move toward reopening its restaurant industry.

The governor also blamed the continuing spread on President Donald Trump, who Cuomo said “has been in denial about the virus from the get-go.” He called on Trump to “step up” and issue a national order for people to wear masks in public.

New York has improved to the point where it recorded a three-day average of just eight Covid-19-related deaths on Sunday, its lowest since the peak in April.

In New Jersey, the state reported 13,138 fatalities with tests that confirmed Covid-19 as a cause of death. Another 1,854 dead were considered probable for a coronavirus link, although they weren’t tested, according to health officials. In all, 171,272 New Jerseyans have tested positive for the virus, though well over 1 million of 9 million residents have had negative results.

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World News

Young Gay Liberal Has Lead Over Homophobic Preacher In Heated New York House Race

Ritchie Torres has taken a comfortable lead in the crowded primary to replace Rep. José E. Serrano, who represented a heavily Latino, impoverished stretch of the South Bronx for three decades.

With over 96% of polling stations reporting, Torres ― who made history in 2013 as the first openly gay candidate to win a legislative seat in the Bronx borough of New York City, becoming the youngest member of the City Council ―  received 30% of the in-person vote, well ahead of his 11 rivals.

A record number of New York City voters requested absentee ballots due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and those votes likely won’t be counted until next month. But Dave Wasserman, a polling expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, declared at 1:22 a.m.: “I’ve seen enough… [Torres] has won.”

“I’m not prepared to declare victory until every vote is counted, but even if I win the election, it’s governing that matters,” Torres said, choking back tears in an interview on NY1 on Tuesday night. “It would be the honor of my life to represent this borough. It’s my home.” 

His campaign raked in nearly $1.4 million, Federal Election Commission filings show, more than any other candidate in the race. The vast majority of donations came from outside the district. Torres got major boosts from the city’s powerful real estate interests, who are seeking to transform one of the country’s poorest districts into what one developer pitched as “the next Williamsburg,” a reference to the hyper-gentrified neighborhood in northern Brooklyn. 

Torres also received strong backing from well-funded LGBTQ groups who were alarmed that his most serious opponent in the race appeared to be conservative Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr., a dynastic figure in the Bronx who has fought against policies to protect the civil rights of queer and transgender New Yorkers for most of his three-decade political career.

The crowded field seemed to give Díaz an advantage. When Serrano announced his retirement after 30 years in March 2019, he set off a mad rush into the race to replace him, drawing political heavyweights such as Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former council speaker; state Assemblyman Michael Blake; and Ydanis Rodríguez, a councilman nearly twice Torres’s age. 

Although Torres had significant progressive support, including from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he did not win the backing of New York City’s increasingly influential socialist left. His support from real estate and finance magnates and his decision to water down a hotly debated police reform bill in 2017 were disqualifying in the eyes of many would-be allies on the left.

He openly spurned some of the groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America, that helped propel Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise 2018 upset in the neighboring congressional district. Those forces ultimately rallied behind Samelys López, a 40-year-old housing organizer whose story of childhood poverty and homelessness added heft to her unflinchingly socialist policy platform.

López won endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but failed to garner more than 2% support in a poll conducted in May by the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. (She is currently in fourth place with just over 13% of the in-person vote.)

Buoyed by high-profile endorsements from Black leaders such as Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Blake, so far has held a firm second place, with just over 19% of in-person ballots. Yet throughout the campaign, Díaz ― presently a close third with nearly 15% of the votes ― emerged as Torres’s foremost rival. The 77-year-old Pentecostal preacher, who opposes abortion and was pressed to resign from the City Council last year over homophobic remarks he made, was favored to win in a district where he has deep roots. 

While Torres and López drew national attention, Díaz worked a familiar church  circuit and handed out turkeys and toys to voters. Often the subject of media gawking for his penchant for wearing cowboy hats and bolo ties, the Puerto Rico-born preacher built a vast patronage network in New York City’s northernmost borough. In the early 1990s, he parlayed his influence in churches into an appointment to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, where he began his crusade to block LGBTQ safeguards.  

In 2001, he won a seat on the City Council. After two decades as a senator in Albany, he returned to the city’s legislature in 2018. His son, Rubén Díaz Jr., is the widely loved Bronx borough president who had been considered a top contender in the mayoral election next year before he bowed out in January, stating the desire to exit public life. The elder Díaz, in a move widely seen as angling to benefit from his son’s popularity, dropped the suffix from his name on this year’s ballot.

The prospect of one of the most Democratic districts in the country sending an anti-gay figure like Díaz Sr. to Congress prompted a surge of independent spending from Democratic groups, like the Voter Protection Project, to stop him. 

The Data for Progress poll showing Torres as the most viable alternative to Díaz also helped.

“He wasn’t my initial option but after looking at the numbers … I had to, in the end, prioritize going against Rubén Díaz Sr.,” said Marcel Bravo, a retail worker who voted for Torres at M.S. 301 Paul L. Dunbar in the South Bronx.

George Leal, a hospital worker voting at the same site, had been impressed with Torres after speaking to him. “He looks like a very sincere person,” Leal said. “He’s very friendly, unlike some other people that I don’t know what they’re about.”

Torres, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Black mother, grew up in a housing project in the Throggs Neck neighborhood of the East Bronx. He enrolled in New York University, but ― struggling with his sexuality and suffering from severe depression ― he dropped out during his sophomore year. He later began taking antidepressants and got involved housing advocacy. At 25, he ran for City Council and won.  

In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Torres acknowledged the bigotry in a district he dubbed the “Bible Belt of New York City.” While phonebanking for his campaign, he said, his mother was told, “Your son is going to Hell!” Yet the Data for Progress survey of the district found that the vast majority of voters across demographics ― 71% of Latinos, 75% of Blacks and 73% of registered Democrats overall ― found “gay and lesbian relations” to be “morally acceptable.”

Still, the poll showed Díaz ahead of Torres by 2% with Democrats, 1% with Black voters and 4% with Latino voters. Roughly 30% of voters in each category were undecided at the time. 

Unless thousands of absentee ballots fuel a last-minute surge for one of the underdog opponents, those voters appear to have decided on Torres. 

Torres and his fellow New Yorker Mondaire Jones ― who is projected to win the Democratic primary in the state’s 17th District in the suburbs north of the Bronx ― would be the first openly gay Black men in Congress. 

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