At the Atlantic Diner in Richmond Hill, customers sit beneath a white tent in the restaurant’s parking lot. They try to enjoy their burgers to the sound of traffic roaring down nearby Atlantic Avenue. Meanwhile, just a mile away in Nassau County, restaurants have literally opened their doors and welcomed patrons back inside.
“As a matter of fact, the county executive in Nassau County has advertised that she welcomes Queens diners to come across the border,” said State Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Richmond Hill, Fresh Meadows), whose district office is located next door to the Atlantic Diner.
And this worries him. If diners can drive over the county border to eat indoors at a restaurant, why would they eat at local establishments like the Atlantic Diner?
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t patronize Nassau County restaurants –– there’s nothing wrong with that –– but we should not be losing all this potential business for our residents in Queens,” he said.
Weprin is one of a growing number of lawmakers in New York City pushing for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to allow restaurants to resume indoor dining despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants like the Atlantic Diner need to be allowed to customers indoors or they will be at risk of closing permanently, he said during a press conference on Tuesday. They are struggling to survive the pandemic, he said. And while outdoor dining has helped, it’s not enough –– especially with cold weather coming. New York City can reopen indoor dining safely and should do so before more restaurants close for good, he said. Nearby counties have done it successfully, and so can Queens.
“There’s no reason why we can’t do this in Queens and other parts of New York City,” said Weprin while standing outside of the Atlantic Diner.
Restaurants in the city were shut down in mid-March as COVID-19 tore through the city and state. As cases slowed, eateries around the state were slowly allowed to reopen, first for outdoor dining and then for limited indoor dining. But, New York City has been stuck at the outdoor dining stage with indoor dining no where in site.
Weprin’s plea is one in a chorus of voices pushing for indoor dining including other lawmakers across the political spectrum and a group of restaurants who are suing the city to be able to serve patrons inside.
At a campaign event disguised as a press conference last week outside of Il Bacco Ristorante, a restaurant in Little Neck just steps from the Nassau County border that is suing the city to be able to reopen indoor dining, Chairwoman of the Queens Republican Party and Republican nominee for Queens borough president Joann Ariola blamed de Blasio for the restaurant industries struggles during the pandemic.
“The only businesses that can survive in de Blasio in New York are moving companies and mortuaries,” said Ariola.
In response to questions about whether or not the mayor is considering allowing indoor dining and how the city is weighing the risks it poses towards exacerbating the pandemic against the ways it would benefits the economy, de Blasio’s deputy press secretary Mitch Schwartz said that the city is working with the state to determine the best way to proceed.
“Careful public health guidance. Nimble and rigorous inspections. Fair and honest dealing with businesses. That’s how we’ve reopened our economy while keeping COVID-19 rates extremely low, and that’s how we’ll reopen indoor dining if and when it’s safe to do so. Now, we’re continuing to work with the state on a responsible timeline and clear protocols for re-opening. That process is underway – and when it’s over, New Yorkers will know we’ve put their health and safety first,” wrote Schwartz in an emailed statement.
The governor’s office could not be reached in time for comment. But on Tuesday, Cuomo told reporters that he won’t allow indoor dining in New York City until the city better regulates compliance with reopening guidelines. The state task force is overwhelmed, he said, and local governments need to pick up the slack.
“That is the maximum capacity for the state task force. If you now increase indoor dining, you are going to have to have a compliance and enforcement function. If you go to indoor dining, you’re roughly doubling the number of places that you’re going to have to monitor,” Cuomo said. “There will be another 10,000 establishments in New York City that could do indoor dining. You know you had a bad experience with bars. You know that you’re at your maximum in terms of enforcement capacity. You’re now going to double the number of est that you need to monitor. How do you do that? That’s the conundrum you face.”
The city needs to act quickly to save restaurants from closing permanently, Executive Director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce Thomas J. Grech said at Weprin’s press conference outside of the Atlantic Diner.
“My fear is this: If we wait another 30 days or 45 days or even, as the mayor suggested, into next year, we may not be returning to the same New York City when it comes to our restaurants,” he said.
For John Athanasopoulos, the owner of the Atlantic Diner, speed is of the essence if there is to be any hope for establishments like his.
He is doing what he can to keep his diner of 23 years open despite the coronavirus pandemic. Setting up al fresco dining in his parking lot helped but the inability to serve customers indoors has really hampered business, he said. Because of the pandemic, he’s had to scale down operations and is now working with a skeleton crew of 15 people, down from 50.
“35 families are out of work,” said Athanasopoulous.
He wants to rehire everyone but without indoor dining his hands are tied.
”We need to open up our restaurant as soon as possible. The sooner the better,” he said. “I’m trying to bring everybody back.”
This story has been updated to reflect a more recent statement on indoor dining made by Gov. Cuomo.