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Restaurateurs, desperate to recover from Covid closings, press to reopen sooner

Restaurants in New York State might not be allowed to open dining rooms to customers for another month. But some restaurateurs, desperately trying to recover from their pandemic-forced closings, are trying to get the green light sooner.

And at least one Buffalo lawmaker wants to do something to make it easier on them to get back to business.

The state's current plan is to allow dining rooms to open during phase three, but Scott Wexler, Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association executive director, pointed to federal guidelines that have dining rooms opening at partial capacity in phase two.

“Our plan relies on guidance provided by the CDC and the FDA, so our plan for reopening restaurants and bars is based on science and facts,” Wexler said in a statement. “It takes measured steps to loosen restrictions on restaurants and bars that take the necessary steps to protect the public health. And it’s consistent with the governor’s objective to open up businesses in a safe and smart way.”

Restaurateurs who have missed out on the sustaining revenue from St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day and Easter — three of the year's biggest hauls — are looking to reinvent their cash flow model.

Current reopening plans in New York contemplate four phases, the first beginning this week with manufacturing and construction, plus retail pickup. Restaurants, limited to pickup and delivery activities since March 16, wouldn’t have their dining rooms open until phase three of the New York plan.

Phases are supposed to last two weeks, unless the coronavirus statistics start ticking upward again, which could delay reopening.

The difference is two weeks of revenue for businesses starved for cash. Bars could open with limited capacity, and restaurant dining rooms could open with social distancing measures in place, such as tables spread further apart.

Here's how the industry group would define the phases, drawing on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance:

Phase two: Allow 50% occupancy of seated areas (dining areas) and 25% occupancy of non-seated areas (bar areas); require all patrons to be seated (bar patrons must be in permanent or temporary seating).

Phase three: Allow 100% occupancy of seated areas; 75% occupancy of outdoor non-seated areas; and 50% occupancy of non-seated areas. Patrons in non-seated areas must observe social distancing.

Phase four: Allow 100% occupancy in all areas. Patrons in non-seated areas must observe social distancing.

“Under our plan restaurants and bars would be allowed to extend their premises to outdoor areas or other unlicensed areas of their businesses so they can maintain social distancing while maximizing the number of patrons (up to the allowable capacity) limit,” Wexler wrote.

In a similar effort to assist restaurant reopenings in Buffalo, Common Council Member Joel Feroleto has sponsored a resolution that would make it easier for restaurants to expand outdoor seating areas, including parking lots, sidewalks and the temporary use of safely cordoned off street lanes.

The resolution would direct “the Parking Department and Department of Public Works to work together to produce a policy to temporarily allow additional restaurant seating outdoors” as quickly as possible “due to the extreme financial difficulties facing said businesses.”

Feroleto cited two examples of cities giving restaurants more room to maneuver. In Tampa, Fla., restaurants have been allowed to use parking spaces, while in Cincinnati lanes have been repurposed as well, protected by jersey barriers.

“It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach,” Feroleto said. “We want to listen to restaurant owners, see what works for their specific property and let them add more outdoor seating.”

Temporarily allowing restaurant owners to use their entire property – including parking lot or backyard – to expand their seating footprint could help make up for some of the limitations required by social distancing standards, he noted.

The measure should be taken up at the May 26 council meeting, Feroleto said.

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