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Outdoor dining could be coming soon, following COVID-19 restaurant closures

The number of coronavirus patients and deaths in New York are at their lowest numbers, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday, but he again cautioned the fight against the virus is not over amid ongoing protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by John Asbury, Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Scott Eidler, Candice Ferrette, Bart Jones, Carl MacGowan, Keldy Ortiz, Ted Phillips, Nicholas Spangler and Scott Vogel. It was written by Jones.

Outdoor dining will be permitted in Phase 2 of New York's reopening plan for exiting the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday, giving a boost to restaurant owners desperate to restart after months of a crippling shutdown.

The move means restaurants on Long Island may be able to start offering outdoor dining as soon as next week, when Nassau and Suffolk hope they will qualify to enter the next phase. 

The prospect of returning chefs to kitchens, bringing back waitstaff and serving customers was a ray of hope for many business owners struggling to hold on through much uncertainty.

“We’re feeling a combination of first-day-of-school jitters and just a huge amount of relief,” said Frank Antonetti, co-owner of The Rust & Gold in Huntington. “The hope of this day is what kept us going during the toughest days of quarantine.”

He managed to keep 60% of his small staff with curbside pickup, takeout and delivery, but said it hasn't been easy. There will be much to work out in the days ahead, Antonetti said, “But now that this day is here, any problem that comes along with it in my book is an easy one.”

Officials throughout Long Island welcomed the decision.

"This will help boost the recovery of our restaurants and Main Street communities we cherish," said Nassau Executive Laura Curran. "And in Nassau County, we are prepared to maximize this opportunity with a program to fast-track road closures in our downtowns, encouraging creative ways for shops and restaurants to safely expand."

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called the action “very good news.”

Farmingdale Mayor Ralph Ekstrand, who was among Long Island officials lobbying Cuomo to fast-track outdoor dining, said the governor's action “will greatly help the restaurants," though he wants more details about requirements for masks and social distancing.

Farmingdale temporarily scuttled plans to allow sidewalk dining when about 1,500 diners showed up to eat Friday night.

Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Cuomo, said Wednesday that the state already has posted on its coronavirus information website complete details of what restaurants will need to do to reopen.

Cuomo said outdoor tables must be spaced 6 feet apart. All staff must wear face coverings, and customers also must wear face coverings when not seated.

A lifeline

Until now, restaurants were listed in Phase 3 of the state's reopening plans, which for Long Island would likely be several more weeks away.

The New York State Restaurant Association said it "is grateful" for the step up. 

Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO, said Cuomo and other leaders "understand that the restaurant industry in New York is on the brink of collapse and this lifeline will undoubtedly be a huge help."

Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said, “It didn’t make sense to leave it" for the later phase and "if all goes right, we should be seeing these businesses set up outdoor dining."

Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin said the town has been approving permits from local restaurants and waived fees for dozens of applications for outdoor dining and takeout businesses adding outdoor tables. “We just want to help restaurants get back on their feet,” Clavin said.

Not everyone applauded the state's priorities.

“So outdoor dining and mass protesting are allowed, but graduation for high school kids and proms are not allowed,” said Jimmy Connolly, 51, of Garden City. “These kids will remember this.”

Restaurant owners said their businesses have been devastated by the shutdown, which started in mid-March.

Restaurants in the seven upstate regions that already have entered Phase 2 can reopen for outdoor dining beginning Thursday. The state has 10 regions. New York City is the only region that has not started reopening, but is expected to start Phase 1 on Monday.

Gearing for next phase

Towns such as Brookhaven, Babylon and Smithtown had announced plans to expedite approvals of outdoor operations as soon as the state allowed it. Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said Cuomo's announcement was "definitely a step forward."

"If ice cream trucks are operating and you can do takeout, as long as you are socially distanced, we think we can do it," Romaine said. "What we need is a shot in the arm for our residents. A lot of them, it’s touch-and-go whether they can open again. … You just can't make enough from takeout.”

John Sarno, who owns four bars in Patchogue, Oakdale and Lake Grove, said he had hoped the measure would go further.

“It’s gonna help my outdoor space,” Sarno said. “We’re still behind. We can’t wait another two weeks or till Wednesday to get outside done. … We’re sitting here prisoners in our business.”

Paul Pandolfi, owner of the Lazy Lobster, a waterfront restaurant in East Rockaway, said he needs to hear more guidance from the state before deciding if he will open for outdoor dining.

Among the major questions, he said, are whether outdoor bars and music will be permitted, occupancy levels, and other restrictions.

“It’s certainly not going to be business as usual,” Pandolfi said. “So logistically it’s going to be a challenge. But we are going to wait to see what all rules are and decide how to attack it.”

Smithtown officials last week posted an application for outdoor dining on the town's website, seeking to give businesses a running start. 

“This outdoor dining process is a vital part of the equation to get our extremely important restaurants up and running and financially healthy again,” Councilman Thomas McCarthy said.

'The beast' under control

Meanwhile, Cuomo declared the state has "the beast" of the coronavirus under control.

“We’ve overcome the greatest challenge that this state has faced in my lifetime with this COVID virus,” Cuomo said. “This was the beast that we didn’t know if we could beat. But so far we have beaten it."

The daily coronavirus death toll was 49 on Tuesday, far below the peak of nearly 800 in early April. The number of new patients due to COVID-19, recorded at 135, was a fraction of the 3,200 at the outbreak's height.

Coronavirus cases remained at relatively low levels, state data showed.

Nassau reported 72 new cases, for a total of 40,644 since the pandemic hit. Suffolk registered 82 new cases, for a total of 40,062.

New York City reported 495 new cases, for a total of 204,872 cases. New York State reported 1,045 new cases, for a total of 374,085.

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