By Sean-Patrick M. Hillman
My Mother, Michelle Corbin Hillman, was one of the founders of The James Beard Foundation. Basically, that means I was lucky enough to spend a lot of my childhood in four- and five-star kitchens. As I got older, I helped many friends who got into the hospitality sector with business development, marketing advice, recipe development, etc. So, obviously, New York’s restaurant scene has a special place in my heart.
When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all restaurants and bars in the state needed to close for the pandemic response, of course, the community understood and respected the decision. Flash forward six months, and the sentiment has changed. No, not because of the desperation these people are facing. Remember, most restaurants are family owned and operated small businesses. They live and die by the turnover and profit from their bar operations (most restaurants are not profitable from food sales, whereas their bar business allows them to grow and pay their staff, etc.). These people are angry because of the hypocrisy coming out of both Albany and City Hall. Can you blame them?
After watching protest after riot after political exception to the rules (i.e., MTV VMA Awards, fireworks, etc.), people are wondering why the city and state are so hell-bent on destroying the core of New York’s lifeblood—the restaurant business. As a mea culpa, earlier this summer, Mayor deBlasio provided outdoor permits for applicable restaurants (i.e., outdoor space availability, parking lane availability, etc.) to begin to serve food and alcohol again. The only problem is that deBlasio continued to lie to New Yorkers. His statistics are all padded. As an example, he keeps saying there are 25,000 restaurants in NYC. No, there are more than 36,000. He keeps saying that restaurants are now able to pay their rent because of his policy. Funny, almost every statistic and survey shows that over 80 percent of restaurants couldn’t pay their rent for July and August. As yet, another deflection and a desperate attempt to appear to care, deBlasio has announced that the outdoor dining permits will be extended through October and available again next summer
Now let’s look at the NY State’s response. In the first week of September, Governor Cuomo stated that the city is not ready for indoor dining, blaming Mayor deBlasio for lack of mask and social distancing enforcement. Then the NYC Hospitality Alliance, along with 300 restaurants and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, filed a $2 billion lawsuit against both the city and state in the hopes that Governor Cuomo would allow re-opening of indoor dining
Interestingly enough, 24 hours after the Governor’s public statement, he did a full 180-degree shift, allowing 25 percent capacity for indoor dining as of September 30th. He made no mention of enforcement or what had changed in that 24-hour period. Don’t kid yourselves folks, this is all political. No, I am not saying the virus isn’t real. It is very real. I know at least 15 people who have died because of it. What is political is the decisions being made. Do Cuomo and deBlasio really care about the 300,000+ people that the hospitality business employs? In my opinion, they only care about their votes. That being the case, there is no priority for them to re-open things that are not benefitting their careers. Just look at the decisions both have made over the last few months.
So, the question becomes, why did Cuomo flipflop in less than 24 hours on indoor dining? A few friends in Albany have specifically stated to me that the Governor is terrified that his future in politics is on life support because of the nursing home death scandal. With the lawsuit filed, Cuomo had hoped the crumbs he handed out to restaurant owners would make them back down. In response, Assemblywoman and Congressional hopeful Nicole Malliotakis flatlined any chance the Governor has of making this lawsuit go away. They are proceeding on the suit until Cuomo allows a minimum of 50 percent capacity. The Governor alleges that come November; if the numbers are still down, he will expand to 50 percent capacity allowance. In other words, he is giving them enough rope to hang themselves with, in his mind.
Twenty-five percent is a slap in the face to places like my friend Stratis Morfogen’s Brooklyn Chop House and Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, where he spent a lot of time and money preparing to keep his guests safe for indoor dining before the announcement. I have known Stratis for 30 years. He is one of the most caring, creative, and hard-working restaurateurs I have ever known. Or my friend Nicola who owns Mercury Bar in Hell’s Kitchen with her family and the work she has put in to keep her guests safe while maintaining her business. They and many others are not getting the support and guidance they need from government agencies like the State Liquor Authority, who is now doing spot checks at the Governor’s behest, often leading to exorbitant fines unlawfully issued for political reasons and statistics.
The net-net is simple. Both deBlasio and Cuomo are playing political hot potato with the future of this city’s lifeblood. If we don’t get restaurants and bars safely open by the holiday season, 2021 will make 2020 look like an ice cream sundae. Of course, we need to stay safe as this virus has too many variables, but treating restaurateurs, and their employees, like children, is not the solution. Education and mask mandate enforcement is. Time to stop with the politics and let people get back to their lives for the betterment of all New Yorkers
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of New York Lifestyles Magazine.