After nearly a year of fluctuating restrictions, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his plans to expand rapid testing in an effort to reopen restaurants. In a press conference this Tuesday, the governor declared his intention to breathe life back into his state, proclaiming, “New York will be New York again.” Then, just a day later, restaurants in designated “orange” COVID zones were permitted to resume indoor dining.
While this is no doubt encouraging news for restauranteurs, Cuomo’s sudden interest in their industry’s vitality is too little, too late. As we close in on nearly a year of lockdown, the governor’s change of heart will do nothing to recuperate months of losses, nor will it resuscitate the ever-growing list of businesses who closed their doors permanently as a result of despotic restrictions. Tragically, New York is just one example of what is happening to the restaurant industry around the country, and around the world.
A year of tyrannical lockdown
From Cuomo and de Blasio to Newsom and Garcetti, our nation’s two largest cities are run by authoritarian tag teams. Over the past few months, the country has plunged back into a second wave of strict lockdowns. In Los Angeles, restaurants were ordered to cease indoor and outdoor dining in November, and in December the ban was extended to all of California, with no expiry date given.
Soon after, New York City followed suit. Although indoor dining had been held at 25% capacity with a great deal of success, it was outlawed yet again last month. In a press briefing in December, Cuomo told restaurant owners, “You should be happy because if we don’t change the trajectory, we’re going to go to shut down and then your business is going to close. And that, my friends, is a real problem. Worry about that because that is a real worry.”
Statements such as these are demonstrative of the apathy of the ruling class as they dish out shutdown orders for the abstraction of the greater good. “Be happy,” Cuomo says to New York City business owners, 83% of whom could not pay rent in July — and those are the establishments fortunate enough to have survived that long.
A closer investigation of New York State’s own data on COVID-19 lays bare just how fundamentally flawed, even castigatory, these policies are. At the governor’s own press conference last month, he showed a graphic on the source of coronavirus exposure in the state. While 73.84% of cases could be traced to private social gatherings and households, a meager 1.43% of transmission occurred in restaurants and bars.
And yet, this industry is being forced to shoulder irreversible economic ruin. In a city once acclaimed for its diverse top-of-the-line cuisine, soon New Yorkers will be left with nowhere to go on date night. But, while facing down illogical lockdown orders that threaten their livelihoods, many small business owners have refused to acquiesce.
Protests erupt worldwide
In December, hundreds of restaurant owners and employees took to Times Square in protest of Cuomo and de Blasio’s orders. “Save our restaurants! Save our jobs,” they shouted as they marched to the governor’s Midtown East office, demanding bailouts or an ease on restrictions.
The following evening, as ten inches of snow blanketed the city, indignant customers braved below-freezing gales to dine on sidewalks in protest of an outdoor dining ban. Trattoria L’incontro in Astoria mocked restrictions on Instagram with a video of staff enjoying wine and pizza in short sleeves in front of the restaurant, captioning the post, “This is what outdoor dining looks like in MY CITY… #loveNYbut #dontaskfortaxes.”
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, restaurant owner Angela Marsden went viral with a video she shared to social media exposing the absurd double standards of Newsom and Garcetti’s similar ban on outdoor dining. Since then, restaurants all over the state have engaged in peaceful protest by remaining open and exercising their right to do business freely.
Swork Coffee is among those restaurants refusing to close their sidewalk seating, posting a sign in their window that reads: “With all due respect to everyone who may be suffering health challenges due to COVID-19, Swork is peacefully protesting… Small retail businesses and cafes are closing, while big corporate giants like Costco thrive and continue to pack stores with patrons. Please reach out to your councilman with your support.”
As dictatorial politicians continue to define as “unessential” the very businesses that provide essential income for the survival of restaurant owners, similar protests against lockdowns have erupted around the world — from New York and Los Angeles, to Paris and London.
Despite the small victory for restauranteurs this week, New York business owners continue to band together to back their protests with legal action. As of Tuesday, more than seventy restaurants have filed a lawsuit against the governor for violations of civil rights, demanding compensation for “both the current and lasting impacts of the Orders.”
The window of recovery has passed for many businesses that have been left with no option but to shutter their doors. Owners, employees, and communities alike have been robbed of their right to conduct business freely. While Cuomo’s softening of restrictions is cause for celebration, let us not lose sight of the unrecoverable loss endured by a once thriving industry. As a result of autocratic policy, countless business owners have forever lost not only income but a piece of themselves.
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