Many NYC restaurants may never recover from pandemic

Michael Schatzberg's restaurant Big Daddy's in Gramercy closed due to the pandemic after 20 years of operation. He's fortunate to own several other restaurants in the area but every day he's faced with a new hurdle.

"It was devastating — devastating for the employees who worked here for so many years," he said. "Devastating for laying so many people off."

It is a sad reality for restaurants and bars all across the city.

"Pre-pandemic, there were more than 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in the five boroughs," NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie said. "While we don't know exactly how many have permanently shuttered thus far, we estimate the number is in the thousands."

Rigie called these times "dire." He cited a recent report from the state Comptroller's Office that found that between one-third and one-half of all New York City restaurants could permanently close if they don't get funding from the government soon. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo just announced that parts of Staten Island will become orange zones this week, which for restaurants means no more indoor dining. 

More than 300,000 people worked in the city's restaurants and bars before the pandemic, according to Rigie. That number plummeted to about 90,000 in April after the first shutdown.

"Since then, with outdoor dining and limited indoor dining we've hired back about 100,000 people, meaning there's still somewhere about 130,000 people out of work," Rigie said. "And if we get shut down again, what's going to happen to those 100,000 jobs on top of that 130,000 that are still gone?"

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As Big Daddy's closed, Schatzberg's new restaurant Isabelle's Ostería opened. But he already saw a drop in business just this past weekend. As COVID-19 cases climb, he's bracing for more restrictions, even after he just hired 35 employees. 

Part of Upper Manhattan is also about to enter a yellow zone, which means people can still dine indoors but at an even more limited capacity.  

"We've got staff now and the idea of the possibility of shutting down, everyone is going to leave," Schatzberg said. "I really feel like they're going to leave to go to other states and other cities where there's work for them."

Months ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would provide federal funding to restaurants across the country. Even though it has bipartisan support, it has yet to be voted on in the Senate. Restaurant owners are urging elected officials to act as quickly as possible.