What to Know
- More than 300 New York City restaurants have joined a class-action lawsuit against the city and state, seeking $2 billion in damages over the ban
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he feels NYC restaurants should be able to open but that he's not yet confident in the city's ability to enforce compliance
- Meanwhile, NYC malls can reopen next week, Sept. 9, at 50% capacity with no indoor dining; casinos can return statewide the same day at 25% capacity and with enhanced air filtration systems in place
Malls in New York City can reopen Sept. 9 at 50 percent capacity with no indoor dining, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday. Casinos can reopen across the state on the same day at 25 percent capacity. Mask mandates and social distancing rules apply and state inspectors will handle casino enforcement.
The latest reopenings announced by Cuomo Thursday leave one critical sector alone left shut down in the five boroughs: Indoor dining.
Shortly after he cleared malls and casinos to reopen next week, Cuomo doubled down on his repeat complaint that New York City is not effectively enforcing compliance -- and until he's convinced of a change, dine-in may be off the table.
State inspectors have noted improved compliance across New York City in recent weeks, but Cuomo said that task force doesn't have the manpower to manage thousands of restaurants in the five boroughs. He says bars have had problems.
It's one thing to have a plan, Cuomo said. It's another to be able to enforce it. Until he feels New York City can do that appropriately -- meaning involving thousands of NYPD officers instead of just sheriff deputies in the effort -- he may keep indoor dining off the table, even though he says he wants them open himself.
"I want to open restaurants in New York City. The economic damage is extraordinary," Cuomo said. "My opinion is restaurants should open. The question is how."
While that ultimately is Cuomo's call, the governor appeared to put the ball back in the mayor's court Thursday, implying unsatisfactory enforcement, in Cuomo's view, is holding back the return of indoor dining. He also acknowledged again the competitive disadvantage for restaurants in the five boroughs, given that restaurants across the river in New Jersey can resume indoor dining Friday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, besieged by questions on indoor dining in virtually every daily briefing, has said New York City restaurants are overwhelmingly complying with COVID rules and regulations. He hopes to at least have a timeline by month's end.
The mayor offered no response to Cuomo's slams on enforcement Thursday. Asked about it during his daily briefing, which dueled with the governor's, de Blasio said city health officials remain concerned about indoor dining. When the time does come, he said restaurants would be treated separately from bars, but didn't specify what exactly that would mean in terms of restrictions -- or whether limiting bars but not restaurants in some way would be legal under state law.
"It has to be health and safety first. It has to be how do we defeat coronavirus? That's the first consideration," de Blasio said, adding he was looking into whether to extend the city's Open Restaurants initiative past its Halloween expiration date. More than 10,000 restaurants are participating in that program, which the mayor estimates has saved at least 90,000 jobs in just the last three months.
"I'm totally at peace that what we've done is focus on the health and safety of all New Yorkers," de Blasio said Thursday. "Our healthcare leadership has been absolutely right to be careful and cautious and focus on the data."
Yet the data also shows the economic impact has been staggering. More than 300 New York City restaurants have joined a class-action lawsuit against the city and state, seeking $2 billion in damages over the ongoing ban. That lawsuit, which comes as the city lauds its outdoor dining program with 10,000 participants, was filed the same day New Jersey announced plans to resume indoor dining.
The rest of New York state, including Long Island, reopened indoor dining as part of their entry into Phase III of Cuomo's reopening plan. Indoor dining was shelved indefinitely when New York City entered that phase back in early July, with both de Blasio and Cuomo citing heightened national concerns about enclosed spaces.
In an effort to try and keep struggling businesses afloat, some in the Bronx came together to build outdoor dining areas, including tables, barriers and dining space. The volunteers took part in the effort organized by the Bronx Community Foundation, helping out restaurants in the South Bronx hit particularly hard.
While service acts such as that are a start, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said bringing back indoor dining is "crucial" for not only the restaurant owners, but also employees — many of whom are immigrants who rely on those wages to survive.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Cuomo sympathizes with that, but again, called on New York City government to do a better job of enforcement. He said he was open to any suggestion as to how the state could better monitor compliance and ensure enforcement and invited Johnson to submit a plan for some sort of NYPD task force on compliance.
Asked whether he felt slighted by Cuomo talking to Johnson directly on New York City restaurants, de Blasio said he's "not taking the bait."
"We're going to make decisions together, as we always have," the mayor said. "I'm not going to comment on whatever the governor said on any given day. What really matters is the ongoing dialogue between the city and the state."
That appears to be happening, though at times the relationship is a fractious one. Cuomo has repeatedly made it clear that reopening decisions belong to the state, not to local governments or "people" -- perhaps a swing at de Blasio -- who have "opinions" about when services and businesses should resume and when not.
It's not clear what kind of enforcement plan Cuomo would want to see from New York City before he feels comfortable reopening it to indoor dining. Neither he nor de Blasio are willing to expose New Yorkers to a heightened risk of COVID-19 exposure -- not after everything they've been through the last six months.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Both also recognize the imminent return of partial in-person school and approaching flu season could present new complications to the COVID fight. Thus far, the phased regional reopenings haven't contributed to any spikes in the city.
The city consistently sees daily COVID test positivity rates around 1 percent or below, while the state hit a 27-day streak of infection rates below 1 percent on Thursday. Total hospitalizations and daily deaths remain at months-long lows.
That sustained progress is partially why Cuomo OKed the return of malls in New York City. Those opened in the rest of the state as regions entered Phase IV but were shelved in New York City, as indoor dining was in Phase III. When they do open next week, they must have enhanced air filtration and ventilation standards put in place. They also must ensure additional staff to control occupancy, among other COVID precautions. Food courts will be closed; loitering is prohibited.
"While this pandemic is far from over, our numbers have remained steadily low, so we know our phased, data-driven approach to reopening is the right one," Cuomo said. "Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, we are at a point in our fight against this virus where we can safely reopen malls in New York City as long as they adhere to strict health and safety protocols. This is good news and the right step forward."
On the other side of the Hudson River, gyms and health clubs also returned this week. Those were permitted to reopen Tuesday at 25 percent capacity. Additional precautions include limited fitness class size, mandatory face-coverings at all times and required contact logs of all patrons and staff to support contact tracing efforts in the event of a potential outbreak at any given facility.
Indoor amusement facilities were also allowed to reopen with similar restrictions. Movie theaters can reopen starting Friday as indoor dining resumes.
While New York and New Jersey are slowly inching back to some semblance of the "new normal," especially with schools beginning to resume, the new normal is a far cry from the old one. A widely available COVID-19 vaccine would significantly help matters, all officials agree. The nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says he foresees one being available by the end of the year -- though questions remain about distribution and delivery for 300 million people.