Andrew Rigie is the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an association representing restaurants and nightlife venues throughout the five boroughs. Over the past year, he’s been a tireless advocate on the frontline of the effort to save the city’s restaurant industry, speaking with politicians on the Restaurant Act, pushing for vaccines for restaurant workers and working toward a safe reopening of restaurants and nightlife spaces.
In this edition of Voices In Food, Rigie shares his opinion on why and how customers should feel safe about dining both inside and outside at the city’s restaurants (provided they’re following proper COVID-19 safety protocols, such as wearing a mask and social distancing), and why a return is crucial for the industry’s survival.
On Customers’ Fears About Dining Out
I’ll preface this by saying that consumers need to act in a way in which they are comfortable. There are many ways for people to support their favorite local restaurants. If they’re not comfortable with indoor dining, they can sit outdoors or do takeout or delivery.
The challenge is now that we’re more than a year into the pandemic, and there’s been so much information that conflicts with one another, and so much that’s changed. So people are not always sure about what’s true and what’s not true. People talk about the dangers of indoor dining, but highly regulated, reduced occupancy dining has not been shown to be a major factor of transmission, especially when compared to other behaviors like private social gatherings in people’s homes.
The Data Says Restaurants Weren’t Responsible For The Holiday Surge
If you look at the entire state’s experience going back to last spring and summer, the rest of the state was open at 50% capacity and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continued to go down to the lowest numbers they’ve ever been during the pandemic. When [COVID-19 cases] started increasing during the holiday season, the numbers were shown to be from families and friends getting together in unregulated settings. If you look at limited contact tracing data, it has shown that only 1.4% of infections came from restaurants, while nearly 75% of them came from private gatherings. And if you compare the numbers of other states that have been open, to New York City with all our restrictions in place, the numbers aren’t that much different.
“Being able to dine out helped to address a lot of the social and emotional crises that the pandemic brought on our society.”
Restaurants have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on such measures as air filtration systems, installing plexiglass and implementing other safety measures. So while there’s no way to eliminate all risk, they’ve gone to great measures to create the safest environment possible. If people are concerned about what measures are being taken, they can check a restaurant’s website, social media or call to ask what safety protocols are being implemented.
The Politics Of Reopening
In a perfect world, the government would have shut down restaurants, compensated them to stay closed, compensated workers to stay home, and we would have quickly been on the other side of the pandemic. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality we live in. So restaurant owners, their employees and their patrons were making difficult decisions about managing different kinds of risks. It’s definitely getting to a balanced response.
Clearly the pandemic issue has been highly politicized. There are people who want to fully reopen or further increase occupancy and eliminate some requirements.Then there are other people who want to stay closed completely. But we’re seeing small business owners who have been losing their livelihoods, exhausting their personal savings, all with the hopes of keeping their businesses open and employing people. And for those employees, often they’re low-wage workers who aren’t eligible for any type of unemployment or stimulus checks and have families to feed and support. One of the frustrations and challenges for restaurant owners is that there are people sitting in their apartments who are earning a paycheck who are aggressively saying that restaurants should stay shut down.
Dining At A Restaurant Is About More Than The Meal
We saw when we opened for outdoor dining last year that dining out brought an energy and vitality to the city streets. That was critically important after the streets were desolate for months and months. Being able to dine out helped to address a lot of the social and emotional crises that the pandemic brought on our society. It provided people the opportunity to eat, drink and socialize in a socially distant, safer manner and to have some human connection.
I’ve said from the beginning that for New York City to recover, New York City’s restaurant industry has to be at the core of the recovery. We’re vital not only to the economic foundation, but also the cultural and social landscape of the city. To put it in perspective (collectively pre-pandemic), restaurants here employed 325,000 people, and more than 140,000 of those people are still out of work.
One of the things we were very happy about is that when we reopened indoor dining in New York City, we also got New York State to have restaurant workers eligible for the vaccine on the earlier side. But we’re still looking at restaurants in Midtown or Lower Manhattan that rely on office workers, contending with buildings that have 10% occupancy. When are the nearly 70 million tourists going to come back to eat at our restaurants and drink at our bars? We need to continue to get people vaccinated and have the government provide adequate support for restaurant owners and workers so those places and jobs will be intact post-pandemic.