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NYC Restaurants Balance Safety And Financial Pressure To Reopen

Michael Schall pours wine in Vini e Olli's dining room which has been turned into a storage space during the pandemic.
Michael Schall pours wine in Vini e Olli's dining room which has been turned into a storage space during the pandemic.

The dining room of Locanda Vini e Olii, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, is inside a hundred-year-old apothecary. It has dark wood shelves, deep cabinets with glass doors, and a floor made of small, pearly tiles.

But right now, the dining room is a storage closet — mostly for outdoor dining equipment.

"We store the empty propane heaters here. And in the front window where it used to be a really romantic table, now it's just filled with plates and glassware," says Michael Schall, one of Locanda Vini e Olii's owners.

Restaurants in New York City are now allowed to increase their indoor dining capacity to 50%. That's the highest capacity they've been allowed to operate at since the start of the pandemic — so many restaurant owners, like Schall, are weighing safety concerns against the financial pressures that have built over the past year of restrictions and reduced revenue.

Schall says Locanda Vini e Olii won't do any indoor dining until every staff member has been fully vaccinated. Even then he plans to focus on outdoor dining and, because of safety concerns, keep indoor limited — using it for rainy or cold days.

Willie Filkowski has been a server here for almost five years. He says it feels good to reopen slowly.

"We have a lot of peace of mind with how things work and I think that ties into not opening inside. Like, wait, we've got it figured out outside, you know, that's great. Let's just keep it like that."

Schall says he can hold off on indoor dining, because Locanda Vini e Olii is on the corner of a block with a wide sidewalk — more tables can actually fit outside than inside, and most tables are surrounded by three sturdy plastic walls. As a result, the restaurant has been making a decent profit from outdoor dining, even in winter.

"We've had the luxury of being able to play it really safe, but there's a lot of people who haven't had that luxury. And they, in order just to survive, have to open their doors inside," Schall says.

"Restaurants have been put in an impossible situation," says Andrew Rigie, the Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. The latest survey from the alliance found that more than 90% of restaurants could not pay their full rent in December.

Chris Maestro owns a bar in Brooklyn, Bierwax, and he says the financial cushion he developed over the summer and fall faded pretty fast once winter hit.

"We had days that we only made a hundred dollars and paid more in wages to staff," Maestro says.

Maestro worries about the safety of indoor dining, especially because of the new COVID-19 variants. But he doesn't feel like he has a choice.

"It's difficult to try to squeeze the dollar from our current situation. I have a business to run and we're going to try to do the best that we can do with what we're given."

To make the most of his space, Maestro is basically running three dining rooms now — the limited indoor one, one in the bar's backyard, and another on the sidewalk, where he just put up a more permanent outdoor dining structure.

Managing the logistics of all these moving parts is a huge challenge, so he's investing in a reservation system to keep seating as organized as possible, especially as the weather warms up and more people go out.

In Manhattan's Lower East Side, Jay Lue says things haven't changed much for her restaurant, Thailicious, since she reopened indoor dining.

Lue thinks that's partly because many people are not ready to dine indoors yet due to safety concerns. But she says the restaurant's bigger problem is that a huge chunk of her customer base — office workers, tourists, and college students — is still not back in the neighborhood.

"It's like a ghost town, like not people walking around here. So it's very hard for us."

Like many restaurant owners, Lue is waiting for a day beyond capacity percentages, when the city gets back to its normal rhythm.

Until that happens, Lue is opening all the indoor and outdoor tables she can. And she's trying to talk to every customer that comes in, to let them know their business counts.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.