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On Wednesday, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo told restaurants, bars, and fitness centers that they must close from 10pm. Eateries can still offer to-go orders and operate delivery services after that time, but can not sell alcohol. The restriction becomes effective this evening (Friday). 

Early evening diners this evening at Empanada Mama on 9th AVenue. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Not only is Manhattan’s weather getting colder but the new restrictions offer a set of fresh hurdles for Manhattan’s restaurateurs — who have not been dealt an easy hand since the first set of pandemic-related restaurant restrictions in March. 

This update comes after an announcement in late September that allowed the city’s restaurants to keep outdoor, curbside, and sidewalk dining indefinitely with the city’s Open Streets program. Many city blocks shut down by way of the program (including Restaurant Row on W46th Street between8/9th Avenues) to offer more room for outdoor dining. Mayor Bill de Blasio has cited this as an important part of recovering the city’s economy. 

With outdoor dining here to stay, cold weather coming, and a daily rising count of COVID-19 cases, eateries have begun to prepare for serving customers outdoors in the winter months. 

Slow start to a Friday evening at The Pocket Bar. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Suzy Darling, owner of The Pocket Bar on W48th and 10th Avenue and the Back Pocket Bar on W49th and 10th Avenue, has been preparing for maintaining outdoor dining space as the weather grows colder. Her team built structures outside both locations, made of a wood frame with a corrugated plastic enclosure. 

“We really went all out,” she said with a laugh. “It’s getting a little colder already, and there’s really nobody coming out. With the announcement from the government about rising cases, now we’re centered around everyone’s safety. I’ll be lucky to have a single person at either location before 7:30pm,” both locations open at 4pm. 

What Darling is more concerned about, beyond the potential for snowfall and frigid temperatures, is the rising case count. As of November 12, the number of new cases in New York reached the highest it’s been since the end of April. 

“Every time Cuomo or De Blasio have made an announcement — and I’m totally on their page that we need to get this under control and prioritize safety — the businesses are affected. People won’t leave their homes, and they don’t come,” said Darling. 

In terms of potential snowfall, both outdoor dining structures have a roof, so Darling is confident the snow will slide off, or they will shovel it off. 

“We are taking this day by day. It seems that people are concerned about sitting inside. That’s fine, we have the space outside, but it depends on the numbers, and I just don’t know, it feels to me that every day is different,” she said. 

Westville on 9th Avenue getting ready for Friday night dinner service. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Peter Staley, the general manager at Hell’s Kitchen’s Westville, on 9th Avenue between W53/54th Street, echoed Darling’s sentiments regarding their plans for the impending weeks and months. 

“The cold weather and increasing numbers bring a new dynamic as a means for concern, but we just finished building an enclosed outdoor setting, with 2 by 4s, and it’s a sort of open-air area, and that’s nice,” said Staley. “Not to throw them under the bus, but we do have the luxury of being in between two businesses. So we’re hoping we can coordinate with them for snow cleanup, but it mostly relies on how the city is doing. If they leave tall mountains of dirty snow near restaurants, that’ll be an issue,” he said. 

Many restaurateurs have set up lavish and decorative outdoor structures that do not appear to have the structure to maintain themselves in harsh wind or snowfall, but for Staley, the biggest concern is the ever-changing nature of the virus and the rising case count. 

Peter Staley at Hell’s Kitchen Westville.

“It’s not so much a concern about the structural integrity of the outdoor space, but it’s responding rapidly to ever-changing government regulations,” he said. “This is sort of an educated guess, but I do believe there will be a split between people who are wanting to sit outside, people who want to do takeout and delivery, and the small number of people who’d sit inside.” 

Both Darling and Staley agree that the outlines and restrictions enacted by the city’s government should be followed, but hope that they can be empathetic to business owners and their needs. 

“I think there’s been a back and forth between business owners and the government,” said Staley, “It’s very important that we have a full awareness of what’s going on and what the changing circumstances are looking like, so just having an indication at the outset as opposed to being reactive. That way, we don’t end up randomly having to shut everything down at ten after finding out two days before. Knowing a little bit about how we will have to respond to numbers as they rise and how we can do that responsibly is what we need. Especially if we see an increase in cases during cold weather, it’d be very stressful to go back to how things were during March and April,” 

Despite the apprehension, it seems that all restaurateurs can do is wait: both for the government’s word, the weather forecast, and the looming spike in COVID-19.

Suzy Darling hosting at The Pocket Bar pre-COVID. Photo: Jon Buckle.

For Darling, she is looking on the bright side: “I have a mission. I want to bring back Ugg boots. If we can get people to have warm feet, we can get them to sit outside in December!” 

Perfect for Hell’s Kitchen outdoor dining — Jeremy Scott’s Flame Ugg Boots.

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