Indoor Dining Returns to New York City, but Will Customers? – The New York Times

At noon on Wednesday, the first day in months that New York City’s restaurants were allowed to resume indoor dining, Aroma Brazil in Queens had only three diners inside — hardly a crowd.

But for the owner, Sydney Costa, even three people was cause for celebration.

The return of indoor dining is a major step forward in New York’s recovery and a critical moment for a restaurant industry that has been struggling for months in the face of a pandemic that devastated it. But it remains to be seen if limited indoor dining will be enough to help keep struggling restaurants afloat.

When the coronavirus swept into New York, Mr. Costa’s restaurant closed for three months. In June, he reopened for outdoor dining only to learn that eating at tables on bustling Roosevelt Avenue was not popular with his customers.

So Mr. Costa, who has laid off 12 employees and no longer draws a paycheck, desperately hoped the return of indoor dining, however limited, might boost his bottom line.

“It’s make or break right now,” he said.

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Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

Yet the delight among restaurant owners was also marked by trepidation over whether customers would feel either safe or economically stable enough to return.

Restaurateurs also worried that state-imposed limits would further eat away at profits, and that a recent uptick in virus cases in parts of Brooklyn and Queens could bring a resurgence that might prompt another lockdown.

“I am full of anxiety and excitement,” said the chef Daniel Boulud, whose restaurant Daniel was set to reopen indoors. “Anxiety because it’s the first day, and the first time, and we want to make sure that we all feel comfortable with all that.”

Until Wednesday, New York City’s 25,000 restaurants had been forbidden from allowing patrons to eat inside since March 16, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered businesses across the state to close. Eateries citywide, from Popeyes to Per Se, were forced to shut their dining rooms, and for months were limited to takeout and delivery.

In the months since, restaurant owners and workers in New York watched as other businesses welcomed back patrons, while fine dining stalwarts laid off employees and longtime neighborhood favorites closed as their finances dwindled.

An expanded outdoor dining program brought some relief this summer and was popular enough that Mayor Bill de Blasio opted to make it permanent. But restaurants were still operating with a fraction of their former business and having a hard time making ends meet.

“We were losing money every day,” said John Doherty, an owner of Black Barn in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan. After three weeks of service, Black Barn ended its outdoor dining program.

Some establishments also could not participate in outdoor dining for logistical reasons. Mary Chang, the manager of E Noodle Group in Chinatown, said her business would have only been able to set up two tables on the sidewalk.

The return of indoor dining came as a relief, she said.

“If we don’t open indoor dining, we won’t have enough money to pay the bills,” Ms. Chang, 58, said.

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Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

Restaurants that reopen are limited to seating at 25 percent capacity and must keep their tables spaced six feet apart — a far cry from pre-pandemic meals where diners could be packed cheek by jowl in some cramped neighborhood eateries. Customers will not be allowed to sit at the bar and closing time citywide will be midnight.

Restaurants will also be required to provide face masks to all employees and upgrade their air filters. Hosts must check patrons’ temperatures before they enter and gather contact information from someone in each party in case the city needs to follow up during its contact tracing efforts.

Looking at the number of adjustments and modifications, some businesses have decided that reopening for a limited number of patrons is not worth the cost.

Adding to the concern are the experiences of restaurants in New Jersey, which have had indoor dining for three weeks but are still fighting to stay open and keep workers on the payroll.

Leah Cohen, the chef at Pig and Khao on the Lower East Side, said she worried about making time-consuming and costly changes without knowing whether her customers would return.

“Are we going to do that, and then no one’s going to want to eat indoors?” asked Ms. Cohen, whose cramped restaurant normally seats 75 and remained closed to indoor dining. “It’s hard to know if there is going to be the demand for that.”

At La Rubia, a small Dominican restaurant in Hamilton Heights, Griselda Lora said that she did not think her sister, the restaurant’s owner, would find indoor dining worth the hassle.

State officials have said they would also evaluate infection rates and other data after the reopening, with an eye toward increasing maximum capacity to 50 percent by Nov. 1.

Ms. Cohen, whose father died of the virus, said she preferred a wait-and-see approach in part because of safety. For now, Pig and Khao will operate a takeout window, and her other restaurant, Piggyback, will remain shuttered.

“It would be great if the infection rate didn’t go up, and we could do 50 percent dining,” she said. “But I’m not rushing for that to happen.”

With the weather amenable to outdoor dining, it appeared that many customers on Wednesday were still choosing to eat outside. Even Mr. de Blasio, who has repeatedly urged people to support local restaurants, said he was not rushing to eat indoors.

“I, personally, prefer outdoor dining,” the mayor said. “And so long as it’s available, I would always choose it.”

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Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

Regina Delfino, the owner of Mario’s, a 101-year-old Italian restaurant in the Bronx, said that out of dozens of people who called for tables this weekend, only two reservations were made for indoor seating.

Still, restaurants were taking steps to prepare for chillier temperatures and hoping that customers would eventually make their way indoors.

In Chinatown, Weien Li, 50, the owner of Shanghai Heping Restaurant, spent $3,000 to set up plexiglass dividers that would help people feel safe eating inside. He was banking on steady indoor business in the colder months.

“Today is only the first day so we don’t know the results,” he said of indoor dining. “By the time Thanksgiving comes around, it’ll be so cold that no matter how nice it looks on the outside, people are going to want to eat inside.”

Those who did eat indoors on Wednesday said they were relieved to have a shred of normalcy return, even with all the necessary precautions. At Aroma Brazil, the Queens restaurant, Joel Villalba and Erika Franco were thrilled to be able to enjoy the Brazilian buffet indoors.

“When you eat in a restaurant, you want to be inside,” Mr. Villalba said. “Because outside it is kind of ugly, and very noisy because of the subway.”

Still, many restaurants in the city remained empty or close to it during lunchtime, hardly offering the kind of business necessary to help boost the restaurant industry’s fortunes.

But Mr. Boulud, a renowned chef who owns a number of restaurants in the city, said that he remained hopeful that people would start eating out again. To help draw them, he reconfigured Daniel to be more casual and offer a more festive experience.

“We’re trying to stay in balance,” Mr. Boulud said. “The business will take years to recover. But if we can keep it afloat in a way that we won’t be hurting or closing the business, it’s better.”

Matthew Haag, Juliana Kim, Amanda Rosa and Raul Vilchis contributed reporting.