As summer winds down, Brooklyn restaurants renew push for indoor dining

Stephen Oliver, center, co-owner of Chadwick’s Restaurant in Bay Ridge, pleads for the city and state to offer guidance on indoor dining.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

A bevy of Brooklyn restaurants are pleading for a plan to permit indoor dining, saying the current lack of clarity has left countless small businesses in limbo and at risk of closing altogether. 

“If we don’t get inside before the winter, I really feel in my heart, 75 to 80 percent, at least, of restaurants in New York City will never open again,” said Stephen Oliver, the co-owner of Chadwick’s restaurant in Bay Ridge.

Oliver opened the beloved Third Avenue eatery with his partner Jerry Morris in October of 1987, just one day after the economy collapsed on Black Monday — but even that challenge pales in comparison to the current economic devastation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

“That was a crisis, and there’s been a few — but nothing like this,” said the restaurateur. “I have never, ever gone through anything as tough as we are right now.”

Chadwick’s seats 105 customers indoors, but the limited outdoor space can only seat about 54 — which has made a substantial dent in the business’ profits. 

“Even at 100 percent it was hard to stay afloat,” said Oliver. 

The government mandates requiring customers to eat outdoors has made restaurants increasingly dependent on the weather — prompting owners to fret about the colder months fast approaching. 

New York City restaurants were initially slated to permit patrons indoors in early July with Phase 3 of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan, but outbreaks in other areas of the country related to indoor dining caused both Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to change course

“You have cases where one bar or restaurant has caused dozens of infections, so that is inherent in indoor dining,” Cuomo said at the time. 

But now, as businesses like gyms, bowling alleys, and museums have been allowed to reopen, many restaurant owners argue they could safely allow diners — if the government would simply implement safety protocols. 

“We need to be trusted as operators to enforce any guidelines that are given, but we can’t do that if we don’t have the guidelines,” said Jumana Bishara, the co-owner of Tanoreen on Third Avenue and 76th Street in Bay Ridge. “People trust us to cook food for them…we should be trusted to implement whatever guidelines we are going to be given by the city and state — and we need that information sooner rather than later.”

De Blasio, however, recently defended the lack of any restaurant reopening plan, saying that health experts were “very concerned” about permitting inside seating, even with stringent protocols. 

“I understand why anyone would want answers, and we’re trying to be honest with them. I could have pandered and told people something that wasn’t true. I’m not going to do that,” Hizzoner said at a Sept. 3 press conference. 

Yet, the mounting pressure — including a $2 billion dollar lawsuit filed by a group of restaurant industry groups — appears to be weighing on leaders in both Albany and City Hall, who largely have softened their tone on the subject. 

Cuomo on Sept. 3 deflected blame away from himself and onto city leadership, saying he believed restaurants in the Five Boroughs “should open,” but argued it was implausible to do so because of “lax compliance” with existing guidelines in the city, and weak enforcement from de Blasio’s administration. 

The governor has suggested dedicating thousands of NYPD officers to enforcing compliance whenever indoor dining resumes, but when asked about the proposal on Sept. 3, de Blasio sidestepped — saying he was “not going to comment on whatever the Governor says on any given day.”

For his part, Hizzoner has promised to “come to a decision in the next few days, definitely in the month of September” on a path forward, and highlighted initiatives like the city’s open streets dining program.

And while the back-and-forth between New York’s two frenemy executives has been raging, a growing chorus of city and state legislators have voiced their support for the return of indoor dining. 

“The rest of the state has been allowed to reopen their restaurants for indoor dining, and New Jersey is allowing indoor dining come Friday,” read a statement from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a candidate to replace the lame duck mayor. “Now is the time to allow it in New York City. Our restaurants and our City’s economy can’t wait.” 

At a press conference with a group of local restaurant owners on Sept. 3 in Bay Ridge, local state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Councilman Justin Brannan said “all we are asking for” is a detailed plan, which would provide some hope to struggling businesses currently in limbo. 

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Councilman Justin Brannan hold a press conference in Bay Ridge to push for indoor dining guidelines.Photo by Paul Frangipane

“The numbers are low, the numbers continue to go low, we’ve met every metric that the city and state have put out for us and yet we still don’t have an answer,” said Gounardes. 

“We’re here today just demanding a light out of the end of the tunnel, we need a plan,” said Brannan. “The fact that you and I right now could go have brunch in Long Island, but we can’t have brunch across the street in Queens, makes no sense.”