‘It’s a very hard blow’: Queens restaurants grapple with another pause on indoor dining as COVID-19 infection rates rise

Mojitos restaurant located at 81-01 Northern Blvd. (Photo courtesy of Mojitos)

With a second wave of COVID-19 looming over New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced indoor dining will be shut down indefinitely as of Monday, Dec. 14. Some restaurant owners, though, fear this could be the final nail in their coffin.

The decision was made to fend off a full lockdown, as the state and city’s infection rate hovers above 5 percent and daily hospitalizations continue to increase.

While restaurant owners and advocates don’t deny how troubling the upticks are and that public safety is the most important, they do argue that they need financial aid and support in order to sustain themselves given the state’s restrictions.

“We all knew it was coming and there was nothing we could do to stop it,” said Jonathan Forgash, chef and co-founder of Queens Together. “If the government has the power to shut us down, that means they have responsibility to support us.”

Queens Together, a grassroots restaurant advocacy group and food relief organization, has joined several small business leaders across Queens in the last months to call for much-needed support. Some of the more immediate solutions Forgash emphasized include putting pressure on business interruption insurance companies to respond to restaurants; rent breaks; and freezing punitive fines from state agencies.

Jonathan Forgash at the Save Our Small Biz rally in September. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

He mentioned that it’s also important for restaurants to find a way to adapt.

“The restaurants that adapt and evolve are going to have the best chances of survival,” said Forgash, “whether it’s by pivoting to a website order system, food relief or community service.”

But some restaurant owners can’t help but feel like the state’s leadership isn’t considering how this will impact the industry, which was already experiencing many complications prior to the pandemic, and the oftentimes low-income people of color who work in it.

“It’s a very hard blow, not only if you think about the restaurant and the owners — it’s a hard blow for everyone who is part of the industry,” said Marcos Muñoz, owner of Mojitos in Jackson Heights. “Hundreds of people will be out of work.”

Cuomo said he knows this is a difficult time for restaurants, and called on the federal government to get them relief. He will also renew the commercial rent moratorium.

“God willing this will end soon. But the solution isn’t to close indoor dining. The solution will cost us more than the problem,” said Muñoz. “We just need them to let us work.”

Mojitos opened about three years ago in one of the neighborhoods that was hardest hit by the pandemic. Muñoz said that while it was difficult to navigate, they were able to invest in their space and create an outdoor experience that many customers have enjoyed in the last two months. They recently upgraded their outdoor setting to “private cabins,” or outdoor wood installations with individual heaters.

But, Muñoz said they’ve seen less people dine out due to the recent chilly weather.

“People still aren’t used to it. Hopefully it becomes something like in Europe and people just accept what there is and make it work — not just for us but for the people who work in the restaurants,” said Muñoz.

Cuomo acknowledged that indoor dining — which has been capped at 25 percent capacity since the end of September — isn’t the main driver of COVID-19 transmissions in New York. Only 1.43 percent of patients caught the virus from indoor dining, while nearly 74 percent of cases come from private gatherings, according to statewide data. 

Loycent Gordon, owner of the historic Neir’s Tavern in Woodhaven, said restaurants have worked hard to comply with the different kinds of rules and regulations put in place in response to the pandemic and those that were already there.

He said that if leadership is making decisions based on the data, then they should be encouraging New Yorkers to support restaurants with social distancing in place.

“Restaurant owners have mostly been complying with rules and regulations and investing in it for the safety of our customers. Our infection rate has been lower than the city average. We’re bringing it down, however we’re being punished,” said Gordon. “This is a death sentence to the citizens we’re supposed to be protecting. This is wrong.”

Loycent Gordon, owner of Neir’s Tavern. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

Gordon said their continuous efforts to adapt and make the most of the current situation can still be challenging, as not all restaurants are made the same.

“I’ve had restaurant owners who have told me this is gonna be the nail in the coffin,” he said. “Takeout and delivery is not feasible for most places. You’re putting us into the same category as chain restaurants, but our competitive advantage is the experience we give people indoors.”

Gordon, who has partnered with Queens Together and several other organizations to feed families and people in need in the last few months, notes that small businesses don’t just employee more than half of the state’s workforce, but also have deep ties to their communities.

In solidarity with fellow restaurants and bar owners, Gordon has organized a “vigil for restaurants,” where they light an electronic candle that they hope “will never go out” on Mondays at 7 p.m. 

He’s calling on Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to light their own electronic candle to show that they haven’t turned their backs on restaurants.

On Monday, after celebrating the arrival of the vaccine, Cuomo and de Blasio warned more shutdowns and restrictions could be possible if a region’s hospital capacity reaches 90 percent within three weeks, which would be labeled as a “Red Zone” and will prompt closures of everything except for essential businesses.

More from Around New York