Restaurant owners fear pandemic in winter could end their livelihoods

National News

NEW YORK (NewsNation Now) — It was a gorgeous autumn day across most of the country Monday, but winter is fast approaching. 

Restauranteurs know it and fear this will be more than the winter of their discontent, but very possibly their last in the industry.

Already beaten down by a months-long battle for survival from the COVID-19 lockdown, many are already closing. In New York City, those that remain have a few things going for them: outdoor dining, limited indoor seating — capped at 25% capacity — and, beginning this week, a new optional 10% surcharge on restaurant bills.

It’s tough to say how diners will respond, or even how restaurants will choose to implement what’s become known as a ‘recovery charge,’ but a Twitter poll conducted by ‘Time Out’ magazine found just over half of New Yorkers said they’d shell out more to help their beloved restaurants get by.

The restaurants themselves have been getting much more creative, by necessity more than choice, and not just in New York.

NewsNation reporters found accommodations being made across the country, especially in cold-weather states where there’s real concern that freezing temperatures and the end of outdoor dining mean many establishments will soon be serving their last entree.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, restaurant owners told us outdoor dining saved them during the summer. In Greenville, SC they said they were hoping to add more of it, if local officials agreed, promising to keep “following the rules.” 

But they’re also watching the COVID-19 infection rate climb in many parts of the U.S., and that is giving the entire hospitality industry a case of the jitters.

Kansas City restaurant manager Aislinn Bird said, “We’ll see how it goes. I don’t know, especially if numbers keep spiking. I’ve noticed that customers are more nervous to come out.”

They were out in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen Monday. Its famed Restaurant Row was bustling early in the evening, which locals take as a very positive sign after all they’ve been through since March when the pandemic took hold in the nation’s most populous city.

New Yorkers have their spots, and they love them. Just ask Samantha Drexler. “This is the time,” she said from her seat at an outdoor table. ”It’s now or never—and these people are the heart and soul of this city.”

The heat lamps aren’t out yet, but they will be soon. In many cases, they’re still on back-order, with a shortage being reported nationwide. There were some to be found in Branford, Connecticut over the weekend, where restaurants had signs up that read “BYOB: Bring Your Own Blanket.” Patrons appreciated the humor. “They’re trying to innovate in every way they can,” one told us, wrapped in a blanket. “And this is a great innovation.”

‘Innovation’ has become an important word, says New York restaurant owner Jason Clark. His place, the ‘Hold Fast,’ well known for its french fries, faces a bit of a space issue without outdoor seating. With capacity capped at 25% in New York, there’s room for just 18.5 customers. You can’t run a business on that.

“In an industry that’s constantly having to adapt from whatever’s thrown at it,” Clark laughed, “I didn’t expect a pandemic and outdoor space. We didn’t think that we’d ever have all this.” They didn’t think they’d have the option of adding a 10% surcharge either, and the ‘Hold Fast’ won’t do it. By law, the money can’t be applied to tips—it’s only meant to help restaurants stay afloat—and many fear it will cut into what their servers take home. They’ve got to eat, too.

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