Even before a 10 p.m. curfew was imposed and the end of indoor dining was being considered, this was a citywide disaster in the making. Restaurants will be vital to our city’s recovery. They employ a quarter of a million New Yorkers, who depend on the industry to provide for themselves and their families. Restaurants contribute $27 billion in taxable sales to the economy and $10.7 billion in wages to the city’s economy. More, they are a prime reason people live in New York and visit New York. They give life to our communities and neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, officials have done too little to help. The city’s COVID-19 restaurant codes have been unclear, burdensome and ever-shifting. While New Yorkers have enjoyed the outdoor dining program, fewer than half of restaurants in the city have received permits necessary to take advantage of it. That’s unconscionable at a time when restaurants are only legally allowed to fill a quarter of their indoor space, even more when they are forced to close by 10 p.m. or potentially cease indoor dining entirely.
As the city experiences an uptick in cases and further restricts indoor dining, it is even more important we take strong steps to preserve this vital industry in crisis.
So what can be done? It is critical that the U.S. Senate immediately pass the Restaurants Act and Save Our Stages Act to provide relief. But whether or not the federal government acts, there are steps the city should take to help businesses control costs and increase revenue.
Next, the city can waive all filing fees for restaurant improvements. Currently, the city levies a fee on improvements that owners make to their air and filtration systems, including those being made in response to COVID-19. That’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. We want restaurant owners to make these kinds of improvements for the safety of diners and employees, and we should not charge them when they do.
Third, the city ought to encourage New Yorkers to dine out, while safely increasing restaurant capacity. The city could encourage dining by foregoing taxes on in-person restaurant sales one or two days a week (for example, Monday evening, traditionally the slowest night of the week for restaurants). The city could reclaim a meaningful portion of this revenue with payroll taxes generated by continued employment, taxi surcharges and fares from increased MTA ridership.
Additionally, the city and state should consider using emergency powers to allow restaurants to expand their outdoor seating. Some restaurateurs I have spoken with tell me outdoor dining represents more than 80% of their revenue. The city should begin by allowing restaurants to expand beyond the footprint of their building to the adjacent street area without requiring permission from landlords or neighboring tenants.
Fifth, restaurant occupancy should be based on square footage and their ability to socially distance, instead of simply by fire code regulations — which have everything to do with evacuation, and nothing to do with COVID.
There isn’t a moment for the city to lose. PPP loans and unemployment checks are running dry, and restaurants are on the precipice. More than three-quarters of them are independently owned, and if they go under at the rates forecasted, we will be left with a city of chain restaurants. That would be a tragedy for the city, a calamity for its workforce and a major liability to our recovery. The city has the power to prevent this. It must do everything it can to do so.
Iscol, a former Marine, non-profit and business leader, is a candidate for mayor of New York City.