As cooler weather begins to set in, New York restaurants that have been using outdoor dining in the wake of COVID-19 face a new challenge — the autumn chill.
Upstate restaurants have had to limit their capacity to 50% for indoor dining because of COVID-19, and to make up for lost seating many restaurants are expanding and using outdoor seating.
But what happens to those extra tables and chairs when cold weather sets in?
“Restaurants are a high-volume business,” Columbia County Chamber of Commerce President Jeffrey Hunt said. “The more people they serve, the more drinks they serve, the more profitable they are. So when they are required to restrict their in-house dining, that’s going to hurt their bottom line.”
In addition to limited patron capacity, restaurants are also required by the state to space seating so patrons are at least 6 feet apart from one another. Restaurants also must have supplies and staff to keep up with cleaning and sanitizing requirements.
Red’s Restaurant in Coxsackie expanded its outdoor dining area. It includes a covered pavilion-style seating area that has clear vinyl sides to protect diners from the weather, as well as heaters to be able to extend the outdoor seating season, owner Kate Konopka said.
“We have the luxury of a lot more space here than the average restaurant, because we do have our banquet hall and then we added that outdoor space,” Konopka said. “Technically, within those three dining areas we’ve been able to get very close to what our full normal dining space would have been, but we are now managing about triple the floor space. There’s a certain comfort level with dining in that we hope that we’ve established over the last couple of months so that will sustain us in the coming months when everyone has that as the only option when they go out, versus having that and outdoor dining.”
In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared restaurants in the state could not open for dine-in service and could open up for takeout and delivery orders as part of the New York State On Pause executive order, adopted in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
Jill Wishom, co-owner of J&J Smokehouse BBQ in Catskill, said her restaurant has two indoor tables and a couple of picnic tables outside, but the restaurant is primarily take-out.
“The number of takeout orders has increased, and we’ve had a lot of people using our outdoor seating, and a lot of people looking for indoor seating, but we don’t really have that,” Wishom said. “Our building is fairly open anyway because of the garage doors, which allows for a lot of ventilation and air circulation. Online ordering has definitely increased. Business has been good, it’s been steady.”
The New York State Restaurant Association has looked at some of the impacts that COVID has had on the restaurant industry. According to a recent Restaurant Association survey, 63.6% of the 1,042 restaurants surveyed said they are likely or somewhat likely to close by the end of the year without some form of financial relief.
“Gov. Cuomo’s leadership during these difficult times on issues such as alcohol-to-go and outdoor dining has provided a lifeline for our members in the past few months,” Restaurant Association President and CEO Melissa Fleischut said in a statement. “But it’s not enough. We are now asking the governor, the state Legislature and those at the federal level to simply help us survive. Without further assistance, the restaurant industry as we know it could be gone in a New York minute.”
Casa Latina in Hudson has been using outdoor seating during the summer, and manager Jose Rosero said they are still working on their plans for winter.
Chris’ Cafe in Valatie has stopped offering full table service during COVID.
“We always did a lot of takeout. People are still allowed to sit in restaurants, we’re just not doing full service with plates and waitresses. People can order at the counter. We stopped having table service, so we haven’t had to limit seating because it hasn’t gotten too wild,” owner Nick Jennings said.