New York restaurant owners have 'mixed feelings' about opening indoor dining just days after the city's coronavirus rate hit a 4-month high

  • Indoor dining reopened in New York City on Wednesday, six months after restaurants closed their doors last spring.
  • Just three days earlier, on Sunday, New York City recorded its highest positive testing rate for the virus in 4 months: 3.2%. 
  • Restaurant owners have mixed feelings about the situation: they want more business, but they're worried about the risks of bringing people together indoors, without masks, for extended periods of time. 
  • Some are just continuing to seat people outside, at least for now, before it gets too cold.
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New York City, once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, has for months now played very little host to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. 

The number of positive coronavirus tests the city has reported each day has hovered around 1 or 2%, for more than three months.

But on Sunday, the city recorded a 3.2% test positivity rate for the first time since June 5, a worrying signal that indicates the virus is on the rise again — specifically, in certain pockets of Brooklyn and Queens. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a press conference that "nine zip codes" in pocketed virus hotspots are driving the increase, "in a city of 146 zip codes."

Still, the largest metropolis in the US soldiered on with its long-awaited plan to open up restaurants to indoor dining at 25% capacity on Wednesday, allowing customers who've been confined for months to cooking, takeout, delivery, and sidewalk eating, to venture back in to the cozy restaurant spaces, where they used to gather, eat, laugh, and chat.

Tom Birchard, who's owned the storied East Village Ukrainian eatery Veselka for three decades, said he had "mixed feelings" about allowing diners back indoors. 

But other restaurant owners aren't letting people inside to eat at all, just yet, despite the new rule. Insider spoke to a few who said for now, they're sticking with serving patrons outdoors, where the fresh air supply is infinite. 

How New York City is trying to make indoor dining safe

The coronavirus travels best between people when they are indoors, without masks, for extended periods of time. Laughing, talking, and spitting all exacerbate viral spread, too, making indoor dining even higher-risk.

To combat this, restaurants in New York City will be relegated to a quarter of their usual capacity. (Veselka, which normally seats up to 106 people, will have a maximum of 25 patrons inside.)

Restaurants must also perform temperature checks on all indoor patrons (though they aren't very effective), maintain 6 feet of space between tables (though that isn't always enough), have no bar seating, and collect a name and phone number from every dining group, to be able to track and trace any outbreaks. 

Most public health experts say that's probably still not enough. "I cannot tell you that indoor dining is safe," healthy policy expert Lindsey Leininger recently told The New York Times. 

The city's food critics seem to largely agree with her on that. 

"I find it unconscionable to take part in a leisure activity that leaves underinsured and underpaid workers exposed to illness and death in exchange for 90 minutes of gastronomic diversion that could quite frankly be better enjoyed in a park or in an apartment," Ryan Sutton, Chief Critic at Eater New York said in a recent article, echoing the no thank yous of many other restaurant critics his publication has surveyed.

Birchard lamented that it won't feel 'inviting and homey,' and worries about the risk to staff

"We're excited to be open inside," Birchard told Insider from the sidewalk outside his shop on Tuesday, as bowls of deep-red borscht and pierogies were being served.

"We're concerned about the risk, and we spent the better part of today trying to space out our tables, not only for the safety of the clients, but for the safety of the staff." 

Dining inside a restaurant, recent studies and outbreaks suggest, is perhaps one of the most risky activities we can engage in during the pandemic. It's not as bad as singing in a choir, but it is up there with bellying up to a bar.

One early study of how the coronavirus spread at a poorly-ventilated restaurant in China suggested that an air conditioning unit was to blame for blowing the virus from one asymptomatic person to nine other people.

Another Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study over the summer in the US found that people who ate and drank "on-site" at bars and restaurants in July were twice as likely to get COVID-19 as others. The same wasn't true of shopping or working in an office — indoor activities which could be done more quietly, at a distance, and with a mask. 

Birchard said Veselka has installed "special filters" for its ventilation system, and indoor diners will be separated by plexiglass shields. He's also moved most of the indoor tables towards the windows, away from the workstations at the back. 

He is worried, though, that, with so few tables inside, the space will no longer feel as "inviting or homey" as it used to. 

"We're very used to being open with a lot of people in the hustle and bustle and the buzz and energy, and we're fooling ourselves if we think we're going to have that," he said. "It's going to be more like a funeral home! I mean, this is my fear." 

On Wednesday night around 8 pm, with temperatures hovering in the mid-60s Fahrenheit, most diners at Veselka were opting to wait for a fresh air table, outside.

Despite the queue, only one table of customers was sitting indoors.

Some restaurants aren't letting customers inside, yet 

A fair share of restaurants are taking a wait-and-see approach to allowing dining inside. 

At TabeTomo, chef and owner Tomo Kubo said he's not planning to put any eaters inside, just yet.

"Every time the government regulation is changing, changing, changing," he said, referring to the shifting regulations the city imposed on street barricades in June and July, as outdoor seating began.

Kubo said he might change his mind about letting people in, "if we are crazy busy," which often happens when it's cold out, and people crave the hot, rich broth of his Japanese ramen. 

At the nearby Grafton Irish Bar, there also are no plans to put any customers indoors yet. Seating will continue to be outdoors-only in the fresh air, both on a back patio, and on 1st Avenue, out front. Already, heat lamps are being tried out there. 

Everybody is still unsure about what will happen this winter, though, when it gets too cold even for that. 

"When the weather gets bad, and we have to move exclusively inside, and we have 25 seats — you can't really survive with that long term," Birchard said.

He's hoping that the reopening will go well, the city's infection rate remains low, and indoor dining capacity will increase to 50%, before the chilly winter months arrive. 

"We will see what's going on," Kubo said. 

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