life

How Coronavirus is Upending New York City’s Restaurant World

Hummus Inc. owner Roy Abohaz, far right, said they would try to stay open for takeout and deliveries at their DeKalb Market Hall location in Brooklyn, March 16, 2020.
Hummus Inc. owner Roy Abohaz, far right, said they would try to stay open for takeout and deliveries at their DeKalb Market Hall location in Brooklyn, March 16, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Almost unimaginable just a week ago, New York City restaurants and bars came to an enforced standstill Monday night, with only takeout and delivery services permitted as of 8 p.m.

As coronavirus cases steadily rise, no one knows when the restrictions will lift — an uncertainty that employees and business owners say leaves them concerned for their livelihoods.

Jason Hairston, owner of The Nugget Spot near Union Square, said the COVID-19 outbreak has pushed his business to the hilt. His goal is to make it to the end of the pandemic intact.

“I’m here right now trying to assess how much longer to keep the doors open because I’m losing money. Because traffic is down,” he said. “Nobody wants to rely on the system to get help.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a Monday news conference that the decision to clamp down on one of the city’s most iconic industries was “not taken lightly,” but was necessary given the current “battlefield conditions.” Maintaining delivery service was meant to “mitigate” the blow, he added.

“We are one of the epicenters,” de Blasio said. “So, I think you have to think of this in a wartime worldview.”

De Blasio also announced that the city would suspend enforcement of restrictions against e-bikes, which remain illegal in New York City and are used by many delivery workers.

‘Taking It Day by Day’

People in the service industry, from restaurant employees to street food vendors, told THE CITY on Monday they’re not sure how they’ll make ends meet.

Eric, a chef who lives in Woodside who didn’t want his last name used, said that even though the restaurant he works for hadn’t shut down, he believes his position is “up in the air.”

“Nothing is secure right now. I’m taking it day by day,” he said. “When it comes down to lives and risk, we all say that money comes and goes, but you only have one life. I think you gotta choose life over anything else.”

Certain restaurants, like some fine dining establishments, are not poised to readily deliver meals.

Charlotta Janssen, owner of Chez Oskar in Bed-Stuy, said they were moving to delivery service for the first time.
Charlotta Janssen, owner of Chez Oskar in Bed-Stuy, said they were moving to delivery service for the first time. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval /THE CITY

Charlotta Janssen, owner of Bed-Stuy’s Chez Oskar, said she was scrambling to get a delivery service going. She noted that restaurants had no advance warning prior to the city and state’s announcements.

“We’re just hoping the government will have our backs, because we understand that this is necessary,” Janssen said. “We have to think of how we can all best protect each other, the most vulnerable, the emergency workers.”

Others, like Hairston, aren’t confident that it’s financially viable to only deliver food, noting the fees services like Seamless and Uber Eats charge.

Seamless announced Sunday that it would defer commission fees for “impacted independent restaurants.”

Small Business Help

The city has committed to supporting small businesses with two forthcoming programs.

One would offer zero interest loans of up to $75,000 for businesses with less than 100 employees that have seen sales reductions of at least 25%. The other would front 40% of payroll costs for two months for businesses with fewer than five staffers.

Eligible business owners can fill out an interest form online. No formal application is yet available.

Samantha Keitt, a spokesperson for the city Department of Small Businesses Services, said the agency had received interest forms from hundreds of business owners from “all industries.”

Other New Yorkers are building community-based efforts to aid service workers facing hard times.

Wen-Jay Ying, founder of Local Roots NYC, a subscription-based farmers market that delivers organic food, committed to donating two weeks of veggies to 50 restaurant workers who have been laid off.

If demand for deliveries increased, she said, she planned to hire unemployed restaurant workers.

“This is a time when we need to be supporting each other,” Ying said. “To help ease everyone’s worries, just a little bit, we could do that by showing that we care about each other, and this is just the time to do it.”

Street Food Slowdown

New York City is also home to thousands of vendors who sell food on the street. On Sunday in Jackson Heights, Queens, vendors peddled tamales and skewered meat to a small trickle of customers on Roosevelt Avenue, a normally bustling main throughway.

One woman said in Spanish that business had slowed considerably.

Mohammed Attia, the director of the Street Vendor Project, told THE CITY that each day of the pandemic brings more heartbreaking updates from vendors: daily profits of less than $30; continued harassment of those selling food without permits; and deep concerns over how to support their families.

Fort Greene-based Colonia Verde announced their closure to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, March 16, 2020.
Latin American restaurant Colonia Verde in Fort Greene announced their closure to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, March 16, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“A lot of people live day to day, hand to mouth,” Attia said. “What about those people? How are they going to survive in this pandemic?”

It is still unclear whether the city’s financial rescue efforts will apply to street vendors.

“The biggest fear right now is how long this will last. And that’s the worst question. I don’t think anyone has an answer to the situation,” Attia said. “It might last for weeks, might last for months. We have no idea.”

They are among a class of workers — many of whom are immigrants — who are unable to telecommute.

“While much of the city shuts down, and New Yorkers bunker down indoors or escape to the Hamptons, immigrant workers are exposing themselves to the virus as cleaning workers, day laborers, restaurant and delivery workers,” said Manuel Castro, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment.

“Many are doing so without the protective equipment they need or any real assurance they’ll be treated if infected.”

‘This is So Dire’

Although her manager had warned her all host staff would soon be temporarily laid off, Adriana Sorrentini was summoned to her usual Friday night shift at a popular Midtown pub.

“I was two hours into my shift when they told me, ‘You know, you can go home if you want to,’” recalled the 20-year-old musical theater major.

Sorrentini was paid for her hours, and her unemployment insurance application is pending.

She’s at a standstill — with no classes and no work in her field or the service industry. But she doesn’t have hard feelings against her former bosses. “I mean I love them, and they’re great, but this is so dire.”

Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, called immigrants the “backbone of the restaurant and bar industry across the city and state — from delivering our meals to cooking our food to washing dishes in kitchens around the state.”

He added that many of these workers are undocumented, meaning that they are unable to access unemployment insurance or tap into any emergency planning funds.

“In these uncertain times, we must safeguard the future of every New Yorker by making emergency cash grants available for those working in this industry regardless of immigration status,” Choi added.

The State Department of Labor is waiving the seven-day wait period for unemployment insurance benefits, according to its website.

But the agency did not respond to questions from THE CITY about whether it would issue a moratorium on pending or future appeals to unemployment claims, how many unemployment insurance applications it has received in the last week, or whether it will be able to accomodate all unemployment insurance requests.

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