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Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association asking New York to reopen eateries in Phase 2

NoCo in St. James, one of DeNicola Brothers

NoCo in St. James, one of DeNicola Brothers Concepts' eight Long Island restaurants. Credit: Daniel Brennan

The Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, which lobbies for restaurant and bar owners, is urging the state to allow restaurants to reopen sooner — in Phase 2 — according to plans submitted to Empire State Development last week and released to the public Tuesday.

As New York state reopens its economy in phases, restaurants are currently slated to be back in business during Phase 3, which at its earliest would not arrive until July on Long Island. For an association that represents 3,000 restaurants and bars across the state, that’s not early enough.

With mandated two-week gaps between phases, a bump to the earlier phase could mean restaurants and bars would open at least a month earlier.

“The value of opening in Phase 2 gets the pump primed and starts the recovery sooner,” said Scott Wexler, the association’s executive director. “[Restaurant owners] are scared, which is why we’re working in some form or fashion to get them open in Phase 2. Customers aren’t going to come back right away.”

Long Island remains “on pause” for not having met key benchmarks for reopening, while some regions of upstate New York state last week entered Phase 1 — the reopening of construction, manufacturing, wholesale businesses, agricultural businesses and some retail for curbside pickup. Phase 2 opens professional services, finance and insurance, retail and real estate. 

The association's plan calls for bumping restaurants to Phase 2 in limited fashion — at first, with half occupancy in dining areas and 25 percent capacity in bar areas. In Phase 3, all dining area seats would be avaiable for occupancy, with 75 percent occupancy in outdoor bar areas and 50 percent in indoor bar areas. The suggestion for Phase 4 would be to open up all seating while still maintaining social distancing.

“Some of this is like a soft opening,” said Wexler, who said he based his plan on earlier Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that were posted in April, but have since been taken down. (This week, the CDC updated those guidelines and created a decision-making tool for restaurants and bars once they are able to reopen).

The association also recommends that restaurants and bars operating under capacity restrictions be allowed to continue serving cocktails to go, at least for a time, and be permitted to extend their premises for service in outdoor areas, to increase capacity.

This echoes the hopes of owners such as Joe DeNicola of DeNicola Brothers Concepts, which under normal circumstances employs 450 people across eight Long Island restaurants, seven of which are still open for takeout and delivery. “We’ve given this a lot of thought, and hopefully [towns] are going to loosen up on outdoor dining, and make it more of a countywide decision,” DeNicola said. “If they want to cut down on occupancy, I totally understand, but give us the opportunity to make it up outdoors.”

DeNicola said he has already adjusted each restaurant's interior to comply with social distancing, implementing at least six feet of space between tables. "I think people are intelligent enough to make their own choices, and make good choices, within guidelines," he said. "If you want to go out to a restaurant, go. If you don't want to do, don't go.” 

DeNicola cited a lack of guidelines as a frustration, however, especially when it comes to bar seating. “It’s very complex, and there are so many questions and not enough answers,” DeNicola said.

The association’s plan is more conservative when it comes to bar seating, at least at first. "Bars are going to have a tougher time than restaurants. People aren't going to want to go into private little booths in a bar," Wexler said, citing the 'cone of silence' from the 1960s television show "Get Smart."

“We have to find ways to accommodate everyone that first and foremost protects them," he added.

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