‘Save us!’: Restaurant workers rally for aid at Manhattan march

A speaker calls for action in the heart of New York City.
Photo by Dean Moses

Desperate for relief after losing indoor dining, restaurant workers, owners and advocates marched through Manhattan on Dec. 15 appealing for aid to rescue the industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s second devastating wave.

Marchers — who included members of Brooklyn Allied Bars and Restaurants, a support system for northern Brooklyn nightlife, and a bevy of other Brooklyn restaurateurs — also protested the latest pandemic restrictions just a day after the latest indoor dining closure went into effect.

More than 1,000 supporters of New York City restaurants gathered at the red steps in Times Square before heading to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office to plead for assistance during what business owners say has become the industry’s most difficult period in history.

“Restaurants are the economic engines of our entire city and when you close and cut them off, and not give them the support, you are stifling and choking the life out of everything for people in this city,” said Borough President Eric Adams at the march, where attendees brandished signs and large banners reading, “Open restaurants” and “Save my daddy’s business.”

“I’m here today to say that we must be sure that our restaurants are thriving, growing, and prospering,” Adams added. “That is the only way back to ensure that our city returns back.”

Borough President Eric Adams speaks at a Dec. 15 rally to save New York City restaurants.Photo by Dean Moses

Cuomo on Dec. 11 ordered a cessation of indoor dining in New York City, which took effect on Dec. 14. The governor cited the recent spike in COVID-19 cases citywide, a rapid increase in virus transmission and concerns about rising hospitalization rates as factors that led to the decision.

Restaurant owners, waiters, busboys, hostesses, and other eatery employees, however, blasted the move during Tuesday’s march, which also enlisted well-known industry leaders, members of the city’s various Chambers of Commerce, elected officials and loyal customers. 

Bay Ridge Councilman Justin Brannan — one of just three Brooklyn pols who appeared to attend the rally — was particularly critical of the closure’s timing.

“Government-mandated shut downs won’t work without economic support for those impacted. Closing indoor dining for a second time right before Christmas without any promise of aid or assistance is just outrageous,” said the pol, who represents a swath of southern Brooklyn including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst. “This will be the last straw for many restaurants and jobs. It is absolutely urgent that the state not only provide immediate aid, but that we speak in a unified voice to urge the federal government to finally do the same.”

North Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso agreed, calling on “all levels of government to work together” to provide relief for city restaurants.

“We know we need restrictions on gatherings to keep us safe from COVID, but to implement those restrictions on restaurants without providing them with any financial support is unconscionable,” said the pol, who represents Bushwick, Ridgewood and Williamsburg. “Our small businesses are integral members of our communities, they provide jobs and local gathering spaces and we have left them to fend for themselves during an unprecedented crisis. New York City will no longer be the city we all know and love if we allow our restaurant community to go under.”

In the end, marchers’ overall message was clear: to survive, restaurants must be reopened. 

“Over 6,000 businesses have closed since the beginning of the pandemic. The report from the New York City Hospitality Alliance shows that two-thirds of restaurants said they are likely to close by the end of the year without a comprehensive relief package by our government,” said Jeffrey Garcia, chairman of the NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association, representing over 150 members throughout New York’s nightlife establishments.

Over 1,000 people gathered in Times Square Tuesday in support of city restaurants.Photo by Dean Moses

Restaurants were already facing a dire situation with evolving guidelines, a lack of customers and an investment in third-party delivery services, according to Garcia, who said that this week’s end to indoor dining has only exacerbated an already dark time for those in the industry.

“We are here today to demand funding for the restaurant industry, specifically the Restaurant Revitalization Act, and we ask Governor Cuomo to open us up,” he said.

If signed into law, the Restaurant Revitalization Act would provide $120 billion in funds to independent restaurant businesses who have struggled during the pandemic. Without it, Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance Andrew Rigie said, there will be no return to normalcy for a majority of restaurants across the five boroughs.

Prior to the pandemic, he said, there were over 25,000 restaurant businesses open across the city, and they employed over 300,000 people. Once COVID-19 hit in early March, that number of workers diminished to just about 90,000.

With indoor and outdoor dining reinstated, the industry was set to supply more jobs, but Rigie stressed Tuesday that the recent shutdowns will cause these jobs to be eviscerated.

A tense moment between a protester and a police officer.Photo by Dean Moses

In the meantime, pols like Brannan are hoping the state can pick up some of the country’s slack until the new COVID-19 vaccine is widely accessible.

“While we wait for the federal government to get their sh– together, there is plenty the state can do,” he said, renewing his recent call to convert sales tax due next week into cash grants for businesses. “This is money that is currently sitting in the cash register that shouldn’t be handed over to the state at a time like this. This will provide some immediate relief to businesses to help them survive this second round of closures. And this should continue until businesses can operate at 100 percent.”

Additional reporting by Meaghan McGoldrick

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.