Are N.Y.C. Restaurant Customers Ready for Indoor Dining Again?

Fragrant baskets of grilled kebabs were served on wood tables freshly scrubbed with Lysol.

Diners were offered hand sanitizer and asked to keep their masks on when not eating or drinking. The waiter wore a mask too.

The dining room at Addy’s Barbeque in Astoria, Queens, showed signs of life again after indoor dining returned at limited capacity in New York City on Feb. 12, following a two-month shutdown amid a second wave of the coronavirus.

“At least something is better than nothing,” said Syed Hussain, 54, the restaurant’s owner. “What we were going through was nothing.”

The shutdown, the second time in the past year that the state had barred indoor dining in a city known around the world for its restaurants, was a blow to an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic.

In the few days since indoor dining restarted, customers appeared to be trickling in but usually in modest numbers, and interviews with owners, workers and industry experts suggested that many people were still leery of being inside.

In fact, allowing restaurants to open their doors to patrons at 25 percent capacity is unlikely to be enough to significantly reverse the economic damage that has already been inflicted, industry experts said.

Thousands of New York’s 25,000 restaurants, bars and nightclubs have closed for good. Many others are barely holding on. They are way behind on rent, furloughing or laying off workers and making a fraction of the revenues they produced during normal times.

The restaurant industry, one of the city’s most vital economic pillars and a key to its recovery, once employed 325,000 people. It has shed more than 140,000 jobs.

A survey by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group, found that 92 percent of restaurants reported that they could not afford to pay their rent in December, up from 80 percent in June.

The second shutdown of indoor dining crippled many restaurants during the holiday season, usually their busiest time, leaving only takeout orders and outdoor dining during freezing temperatures. The rent payment figures for January are likely to be no better.

“We have been the eye of this crisis,” said Andrew Rigie, the alliance’s executive director. “When Covid-19 hit, we were told to socially distance, but restaurants are where we come together to socialize. Restaurants are part of not only the economic foundation but also the social and cultural fabric of New York City.”

Across the nation, restaurants are reeling from pandemic restrictions and a recession. The number of restaurant visits nationwide plummeted by as much as 27 percent in the second quarter of 2020 — the biggest drop since at least the 1970s — compared with the same period the year before, said Darren Seifer, the food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer research firm.

By comparison, during the worst of the 2009…

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