Coronavirus Fears Leave NYC Restaurant Workers Particularly Vulnerable

Gotham Bar & Grill announced a permanent closing. Photo: Scott Heins

As coronavirus cases rise and concern about its spread grows in the United States, businesses have begun facing some very real difficulties. And those who work in the hospitality industry — whether they’re line cooks, bartenders, porters, delivery workers — are particularly vulnerable because of economic realities and their very public-facing jobs. They lack job security, tend to be paid low wages and don’t always have access to health insurance. The public might also avoid the businesses outright, leading to inevitable closures. For owners, there’s an equally dire concern about what sort of hit their typically low-margin businesses can take.

“I’m setting up for this season as I would normally go about it,” says Andrew Steinberg, the owner of Berg’s Pastrami, which caters, runs at some of the city’s most prominent outdoor markets, and has been popping-up at bars during the off-season. “But I am sure that the outdoor season is going to be hit hard.” When asked if he’s worried, he says, “Of course it concerns me — I’m extremely concerned. That’s my livelihood.”

Around New York, the effects of the coronavirus are playing out in all sorts of ways within the restaurant and nightlife industry. Grub Street is reaching out to dozens of workers and owners and will continue to update this post with their stories.

Closings

On March 13, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group announced that it will temporarily close all 19 of its restaurants, including the Modern. East Village bistro Virginia’s also announced a temporary closing “until further notice.” In a memo sent to staff, employees were told they’d be compensated through the end of the pay week and to take any paid time off they have, after which they’ll go into “unpaid leave” status. USHG is the first major restaurant group to take this step, following the closing of other individuals restaurants. Jing Fong has temporarily closed because of Governor Cuomo’s order prohibiting large gatherings, as have midtown’s Oceana until April 1, Williamsburg’s Aska for two weeks; and Le Bernardin for a minimum of two weeks.

One of the biggest shocks is the announcement of a permanent closing by Gotham Bar & Grill, which is shuttering after service on March 14, after more than three decades in business. (And after a major revamp just six months ago.) According to a statement sent out to the restaurant’s diners, the team now plans on “doing what we can to assist our industry and help New York City recover.”

Fears around health insurance.

Health insurance is far from a guarantee for bar and restaurant workers. Many are among the 27 million Americans who do not have health insurance; others only have shoddy health insurance, and all who work hourly shifts do not get paid time off. The Department of Labor called bartending one of the country’s most stressful professions, and working in the restaurant and bar industry means coming into constant contact with germs. Health care is already a crisis for these workers, and a worsening pandemic will only make aggravate that reality.

“In small restaurants, it’s very hard to provide health care,” says Diego Moya, the chef at the Tribeca’s wine-centric restaurant Racines. “So what happens if one of my guys gets sick and decides they don’t want to go to the doctor because they don’t have insurance? It just gets really tricky.”

He says they’ll obviously struggle if they lose anyone — “which isn’t the most important thing,” he adds — and that Racines can really only afford to be one person down.

The owners of the Jackson Heights restaurant Arepa Lady, meanwhile, say that if it comes to it, they’ll support a sick worker with paid time off. “It sucks around restaurants because medical benefits are really hard to get. Especially when you work the floor, when you’re making tips,” says co-owner Alejandro Osorio. (His famous mother founded the business.) “If one of my guys is sick, because this is a small place, we can just figure it out, whatever. You can just get a set wage so you can stay home. Of course.”

The reality of the industry, though, means that people in the industry get sick and still go to work. “That’s sort of built in, unfortunately. Wherever it happens first, I’m sure the person is just going to think they have a cold or something,” says Orlando Franklin McCray, the head bartender at Daymoves/Nightmoves.

Restaurants now must brace for a mandated reduction in business.

While Racines NY took the unprecedented step of removing seats voluntarily, it now appears that all New York City restaurants will be forced to at least reduce their capacity by 50 percent. All venues statewide that seat 500 or fewer people will have to do so on Friday, March 13, at 5 p.m., Governor Andrew Cuomo announced. Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced support for the measure, saying it would affect restaurants and bars. Restaurants that don’t comply will have to close, and de Blasio acknowledges that the impact will be “serious.” Additionally, large events have been banned.

Uncertainty around markets.

To slow the pandemic’s growth, health experts and government agencies are recommending that people practice social distancing and avoid crowded spaces.

David Oropeza, an owner of Bolivian Llama Party in the Columbus Circle subway station’s Turnstyle Underground Market, notes that “70,000 people go through there in a day — so obviously that’s the worst place you want to be. We’re naturally worried business will be affected.”

There’s also uncertainty for seasonal markets, which return as the weather warms up. John Wang has been preparing a press release about the planned April 18 return of the Queens Night Market. “I was sort of definitely going to send it out until two days, and now my inbox is full of not just vendors but potential customers asking, ‘What are you going to do?’”

Things were going okay for the Queens Night Market until the last week, when Wang says he started encountering hesitation from signed-on vendors and recruitment got tough. “A lot of our vendors’ invoices were due last week and this week, and all of a sudden everyone was like, ‘Oh, not sure I want to pay anymore because I want to see what happens with coronavirus.’ It’s kind of a nightmare.”

Wang has already dealt with other hiccups but feels the market is nimble enough that they can postpone or reschedule two weeks out without a big impact on people’s lives. He doesn’t worry about being able to credit or pay back vendors so much as the “logistical nightmare” of refunding the 10,000 tickets for his planned previews. “We’re obviously not going to open if we’re putting vendors at risk, or more at risk than from whatever else they’d be doing,” Wang says.

If the market’s return gets delayed, though, that could be tough for vendors like Janie Deegan, who bakes cakes and her signature pie-crust cookies for her Janie’s Bakes brand. “That’s the No. 1 thing that keeps me alive through the summer,” she says. (Her business also caters and has recently seen an uptick in e-commerce orders following Deegan’s recent winning appearance on Chopped.)

Joseph Pedro Fernandes Batista of the Portugese egg tart specialist Joey Bats Café says its been “business as usual” at his brick-and-mortar locations but also worries about his market presence — his stands at the Queens Night Market and the Market’s pop-up in Rockefeller Center account for 40 percent of his annual business. “I fully expect the markets will have some impact,” he says. Steinberg had expressed concern about attendance plummeting at Smorgasburg, the hugely popular outdoor market in Williamsburg, saying he fears it could drop by as much as two-thirds.

Asked about this, Smorgasburg co-founder Eric Demby writes that they do expect a decrease in foot traffic, but not one so severe. Last weekend’s attendance at their indoor market in NYC and Smorgasburg L.A. were both on par with the average, he notes. “In terms of attendance, I would say yes, we are anticipating some drop, particularly due to the dip in travel and visitors that seems to be materializing,” he writes. “What we’re really hoping for is a slowdown, not a shutdown.”

Update: On March 12, Governor Cuomo announced that New York State would ban large events, affecting popular food markets like Smorgasburg, which announced on Instagram that all markets would be “put on hiatus” and called the decision “difficult but clearly correct.” “I think we can sum up dozens of phone calls and texts by saying that everyone knows they’re doing the right thing but it all still royally sucks,” Demby writes.

The Queens Night Market’s Wang tells Grub that he anticipates delaying the event’s return until “at least” the beginning of May. “Of course, the ban is devastating to us, but the safety of our vendors and visitors has always been our top priority,” he writes. “We’ll track developments as closely as possible the next few weeks, and make announcements about an updated opening night if and when we have a better sense of the circumstances.”

Some relief?

Restaurants aren’t businesses that can take sustained hits. A single downturn can wipe one out, and there isn’t much in the way of wiggle room.

“I still really rely on the small corporate catering orders and direct-to-customer orders, and a ton of those have been canceled for me lately,” says Deegan. At the same time, her distributor has been out of ingredients because it has had big orders canceled outright. Deegan had staffed up to be able to fulfill a big order — which accounts for an eighth of her revenue this year — that got delayed a month. “I have no idea if it’s related to this or just a fluke coincidence. So I had to let staff go who aren’t on my payroll consistently. This month was set to be an awesome financial month, and I took out a $ 25,000 line of credit I’ve used.”

For small business, there may be at least some relief. On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced businesses with fewer than 100 employees that can document a 24 percent drop in sales because of the coronavirus in New York are eligible for small-business loans of up to $ 75,000. Businesses with less than five employees can apply for cash grants of up to $ 6,000.

Chinatowns and downtown still suffer.

The hardest-hit areas still appear to be the city’s Chinatowns. Reports and social media posts about racism toward Chinese-Americans and other people of East Asian descent continue to come out. California senator Dianne Feinstein went so far as to call out the racism in a public statement, writing “this is unconscionable … bigotry toward any one group for a virus they have nothing to do with makes no sense.” Attacks on and racism faced by Asian-Americans in New York and elsewhere have been documented in video posted to social media, including by a man who was turned away from an Indiana hotel.

Those restaurants have seemed to face the most impact. Steinberg, who lives in Astoria with his Chinese-American wife, says he dropped into a usually hectic Flushing location of the popular Chinese chain Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot at prime-time on Saturday and didn’t have to wait. Even in Astoria, he says he’s noticed that Chinese takeout restaurants appear less busy.

In February, Chinatown restaurateurs — including those behind neighborhood institutions like Jing Fong and Nom Wah Tea Parlorreported declining sales of as much as 40 to 50 percent. “It’s a ghost town in Chinatown right now,” Nom Wah’s Wilson Tang told Grub at the time. Other publications in America, as well as abroad, reported similar drops in business.

“It’s really serious to me because it reminds me a lot of the SARS pandemic a couple years back,” says Moonlynn Tsai, a co-owner of Malaysian café Kopitiam in Chinatown. (In response to the drop in business, she’s organizing Chinatown food tours led by food industry people.) “My parents own restaurants in San Diego, and it hurt so bad they never fully recovered and one had to shut down.” She adds, “The stigma is more directed towards the heart of Chinatown. I think we’ve been lucky; our community that comes in is a lot more aware than most. We personally haven’t dropped as much. Maybe slightly. Not as dire.”

However, restaurants have already closed, some permanently. In Chinatown, the 42-year-old Hoy Wong is no more. A friend of the owner told Food & Wine that they decided not to renew their lease after “coronavirus paranoia had decimated the restaurant’s business.” Eater NY also reported that four of Sunset Park’s typically slammed dim sum parlors, including Bamboo Garden, had shut down because of slowing sales from coronavirus. (An owner of a Chinese restaurant in Oakland told Slate he may have to close for similar reasons, saying: “I think there’s been an almost 50 percent loss.”)

“Last week, we had meetings running through several scenarios ranging from customers coughing, racism, and employees calling out sick,” says Sakura Yagi, the COO and a second-generation owner of the East Village’s T.I.C. Restaurant Group. Tsai says the situation has only gone further south. “What I have noticed is the racism geared towards Asian. It has just been getting worse and worse,” she says.

The impact is inconsistent — and tricky to predict.

Midtown restaurants — because they rely on business from tourists, office workers, and Westchester commuters — are reportedly already feeling the economic effects of eerily empty dining rooms, and one restaurant in the area closed for another reason: Danny Meyer’s fine-dining restaurant inside MoMA, the Modern, shuttered on Monday after Union Square Hospitality Group learned an individual who tested positive for coronavirus had dined there last week. (That individual was port Authority executive director Rick Cotton, who reportedly ate there a day before his earliest possible exposure.) After the restaurant was sanitized by an outside company, it was reopened on March 10.

However, not all restaurateurs in other neighborhoods are reporting a drop in business. Marco Saavedra, who is the host at and help runs his family’s Mott Haven restaurant, La Morada, says they haven’t suffered, though he believes they may have been buffered by a recent James Beard Semifinalist nomination as well as publicity around his activism for undocumented immigrants. “We haven’t seen a downtown in customers yet, but a lot of my uncles and aunts who work in the service industry say their other jobs have seen a downturn,” he says. He’s more concerned about the well-being of his parents, who run the restaurant. His father has diabetes, and his clinic at Columbia has shut down for the month

“My dad, whenever he gets sick, his recovery time is longer than the average person. So I think thats something we’re trying to keep aware of, too,” he says. “We hope that he doesn’t get it, but I mean, as long as he’s working in the restaurant, we’re aware he might get exposed. He’s not so much in the restaurant on a day-to-day basis.”

Osorio also says that business at Arepa Lady so far hasn’t seemed to be affected. “Have I seen a big drop? No, we haven’t noticed,” he says. “To be honest, there’s a bunch of racism around that. People are avoiding Asian places.”

Others downtown are worried about what they’re seeing. “I’ve noticed a definite dip in foot traffic over the past week in the East Village. Union Square station seems less populated outside of peak hours, and the early portions of service at the bar seem a bit depressed,” says Ben Rojo, the cocktail bartender behind Black Emperor in the East Village. While he says he’s seen “a considerable dip” in the neighborhood, his own bar has been okay because of its industry following. “Our traffic earlier in the day, usually driven by the nine-to-five, after-work crowd, has slowed noticeably. Our nights, driven by restaurant workers and freelancers, remain almost defiantly robust.”

In the East Village, T.I.C. Restaurant Group — which really helped lay the gound for the neighborhood’s reputation as a destination for Japanese food — is reportedly suffering. “We’ve definitely seen a massive drop-off of business. Some of our places, mainly sit-down, have seen a 25 percent decrease, but our delivery places are staying strong,” Yagi says. “Yesterday, we had two reservations at Sakagura East Village. Two. Thank God we had a few of our regular customers walk in and an amazing group of four guests who were celebrating a birthday with us.”

Rojo adds that here’s also been a similar split at the East Village wine bar Ruffian and its sister spot Kindred, where he’s an investor, saying those places have experienced daytime lulls. Oropeza says weekends have been slower for Bolivian Llama Party, to the tune of a 15 percent drop this Sunday, while weekdays have stayed steady.

“It sucks because restaurants really rely on weekends,” he says. “We’re conscious of taking the safety measures that are necessary. But at the same time, we have to realize that people’s fears and anxieties, no matter what the reality is, is really affecting their choices, whether they come out to eat with us.”

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