The COVID-19 pandemic has exacted an unimaginable toll on the restaurant industry. Since the state-mandated shutdown in March this year, more than 1,000 NYC restaurants have permanently closed, countless restaurant staffers are still without jobs, and experts have predicted more than half of New York restaurants could close over the coming months due to the mix of cold weather and limited financial aid.
Still, restaurants have reinvented themselves — often several times — within the last 10 months while facing one obstacle after another. Some have significantly altered and expanded menus to become more takeout and delivery friendly — not to mention the advent of to-go cocktails — and others have created large retail components selling pantry staples like chile oils and bread. Restaurants continue to create elaborate outdoor dining setups now that NYC has permitted al fresco eating year round.
But winter has only started and things are likely to get a lot harder for NYC restaurants in the coming months before they get better once more people are vaccinated and warmer weather allows more people to eat outside. As we head into an uncertain, but hopeful 2021, Eater is taking a look back at the year that changed everything for restaurants in NYC highlighting the biggest developments and most innovations from the year gone by.
Late January 2020 — NYC’s Chinese restaurants take a hit
Long before a majority of the city’s restaurants saw a massive drop in business, restaurants located in NYC’s various Chinatowns were already experiencing a decline in sales. This was in large part due to xenophobia and the spread of misinformation related to the virus on top of travel restrictions the U.S. government imposed on China, which led to a major drop in Chinese tourists, the second largest group of international travelers to the city. Chinese restaurants would continue to suffer disproportionately in the coming months due to a mix of vandalism and discrimination, but the initial hit to their sales was the first real indication of what was to come for the restaurant industry at large.
Early March 2020 — Mass event cancellations at NYC restaurants
Just days after the first reported COVID-19 case in Manhattan, hotels, catering companies, and large restaurants across the city saw cancellations of events or corporate parties. Some nixed plans altogether while others asked for events to be postponed until the summer. Establishments also saw a decline in bookings for the spring.
March 12, 2020 — New York requires restaurants to reduce capacity
Following a ban on large events with more than 500 people, the state mandated restaurants reduce capacity by half as cases climbed past 300 in the state. Just days before, Mayor Bill de Blasio had stated that it was safe for healthy diners to continue eating out, but as cases in the city and state began to skyrocket, public officials changed course.
Mid-March 2020 — NYC restaurants begin to close preemptively
Just days before the state-mandated shutdown order came through, hundreds of restaurants across the city shut their doors preemptively as cases continued to climb in the city and restaurants worried about the safety of their employees and diners.
March 16, 2020 — Gov. Andrew Cuomo shuts indoor dining
Cuomo moved to limit restaurants to takeout and delivery only starting March 16, the largest disruption the restaurant industry had faced in NYC since the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Sandy.
March 17, 2020 — Restaurants can sell booze for takeout and delivery
For the first time, New York state allowed restaurants and bars in the city to sell wine or liquor for takeout and delivery. The mandate, however, required that restaurants sell food along with each purchase of alcohol.
March 20, 2020 — New York creates eviction moratorium
Gov. Cuomo introduced the first of the eviction moratoriums, which prevented landlords from evicting commercial tenants for not paying rent. While longterm rent relief is still lacking, Cuomo has continuously extended this moratorium throughout the pandemic.
March 25, 2020 — Groundbreaking chef Floyd Cardoz dies
The pioneering, Mumbai-born chef was one of the first major figures in the NYC food world to die from complications related to COVID-19. In the months that followed, the staggering toll the virus took on the city included the deaths of dozens of hospitality industry workers, chefs, and restaurant owners.
March 27, 2020 — President Trump signs the first stimulus bill
The president signed the first coronavirus relief bill worth $2 trillion, which provided weekly unemployment checks of $600, gave Americans one-time stimulus checks starting at $1,200 for individuals making under $75,000 a year, and provided businesses with loans that would be forgiven if restaurants and bars met the required criteria.
Late-March 2020 — Hundreds of street vendors forced to pack up
With a majority of office goers required to work from home, major hubs for street food vendors like the Financial District and Midtown became ghost towns, forcing vendors to pack up their trucks, leaving many without an alternate source of income or the ability to rely on delivery.
April 15, 2020 — Grocery stores require face coverings
Mayor de Blasio announced that New Yorkers visiting grocery stores would be required to wear some type of face covering. Gov. Cuomo later issued an executive order requiring all New Yorkers to wear a face covering in public. NYC also unveiled a $170 million grocery store and food plan to get meals to New Yorkers in need.
April 17, 2020 — NYC restaurants begin boarding up
More than a month into the shutdown, several restaurants across the city began boarding up their doors and windows to protect themselves from vandalism and burglary. With no clarity on when restaurants might be able to open again, many felt it was a necessary step.
April 20, 2020 — Shake Shack returns its small business loan
Following mounting criticism that large chain restaurants across the country had gobbled up much of the small business fund created through the Paycheck Protection Program, restaurateur Danny Meyer, who founded the chain, said he would return the burger joint’s $10 million loan. Many other chains followed suit in the days and weeks after.
May 4, 2020 — First restaurant reopening news
For the first time since the pandemic-related shutdown in March, Gov. Cuomo indicated that restaurants were part of the third phase of New York’s reopening plan. He didn’t indicate when that would be, but it was the first sign that things were beginning to stabilize.
May 13, 2020 — Third-party fee cap
New York City had been working to curb the power and influence of third-party delivery companies like Grubhub and UberEats even prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic gave the government an extra nudge. The City Council passed emergency legislation that placed a 20 percent cap on third-party delivery companies.
Late-May, 2020 — Calls to expand outdoor dining grow
With New Yorkers increasingly crowding outside bars and restaurants across the city due to the warmer weather, elected officials and restaurant owners doubled down on calls to expand outdoor dining beyond just establishments that had permits to use their sidewalk for seating.
Late-May, 2020 — Restaurants experiment with new tech
With hopes of a reopening beyond only offering takeout and delivery, restaurants across the city began debuting experimental technologies to make diners feel safer. Additions included sushi robots, temperature scanners, and the proposed return of automats.
May 28, 2020 — City Council tries to force the mayor’s hand
With no outdoor dining guidelines from the city or state, the City Council introduced legislation asking the city’s transportation department to identify streets, sidewalks, and plazas that would be ideal for restaurants to serve customers outdoors.
June 4, 2020 — NYC finally unveils outdoor dining plan
The de Blasio administration finally came through with its outdoor dining plan, which included using parking spaces and certain city streets closed to vehicular traffic for outdoor dining. The official launch of outdoor dining was still a while away at that point.
June 8, 2020 — NYC reopens after three months
After a nearly three-month lockdown, NYC reopened for the first time with workers in construction, manufacturing, and retail being allowed to return. Restaurants were still restricted to takeout and delivery.
June 9, 2020 — What indoor dining might look like
For the first time since the shutdown, Gov. Cuomo indicated what a full reopening plan for restaurants could look like including half capacity dining indoors, and tables placed six feet apart.
June 22, 2020 — NYC officially opens for outdoor dining
NYC launched its Open Restaurants program allowing restaurants to expand on to sidewalks, parking spaces, and backyards.
July 1, 2020 — Indoor dining postponed
After a spike in COVID-19 cases in Texas and California, in part due to an early return to indoor dining, the state indefinitely postponed NYC’s indoor dining restart, which was set to get underway on July 6.
July 7, 2020 — Social distancing complaints on the rise
Manhattan once again topped the other city boroughs for the most number of social distancing complaints. The city had received more than 745 complaints since the launch of outdoor dining on June 22.
July 16, 2020 — Cuomo introduces three strike system
Following a rise in social distancing complaints against patrons hanging out outside restaurants and bars, the governor implemented a three strike policy against New York establishments that could result in the suspension of a restaurant’s liquor license or prompt a shutdown of the venue.
July 17, 2020 — Outdoor dining extended
Originally set to end on Labor Day, Mayor de Blasio extended the city’s outdoor dining program to October 31.
Late-July, 2020 — SLA begins its crackdown
The state liquor authority began its crackdown on non-compliant restaurants and bars across the state, including many establishments in NYC. The agency moved to temporarily suspend the liquor licenses of places with egregious violations, and fined other spots for social distancing violations. Many more spots would see their licenses suspended in the months after.
July 31, 2020 — State unemployment benefits extended
Even as uncertainty remained on whether the federal weekly $600 unemployment payments would be extended, New York moved to extend its unemployment benefits by an additional 20 weeks to bring the total to 59 weeks.
Early August, 2020 — Chinatown springs back to life
One of the neighborhoods most ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, Manhattan’s Chinatown showed some of its pre-pandemic vibrancy in late July and early August, according to Eater critic Robert Sietsema.
Mid-August, 2020 — Restaurant closings mount
Six months into the pandemic, an estimated 1,000 restaurants had closed in New York City, and experts predicted that many others had closed without any notice. Many in the hospitality industry suggested that it might be years before we know the full toll of the pandemic on restaurant closures.
September 1, 2020 — Indoor dining lawsuit
With no word yet on when indoor dining would return to NYC — despite other parts of New York state offering it — increasingly frustrated restaurant owners banded together to file lawsuits against the state. Gyms in the city had previously done the same, allowing them reopen subsequently.
September 9, 2020 — Indoor dining set to return
As pressure mounted on the state to come up with some type of plan for the return of indoor dining, Gov. Cuomo announced that NYC establishments would be able to offer indoor dining at 25 percent starting September 30. He indicated at the time that the city could transition to half capacity indoor dining if COVID-19 cases didn’t climb.
September 24, 2020 — Personal liability protection
The City Council moved to extend protections for restaurant owners against personal liability clauses in leases that allow landlords to go after a tenants personal finances if they fail to pay rent. The measure is now in place till April 2021.
September 25, 2020 — Outdoor dining is permanent
In a landmark decision, de Blasio announced that the city’s outdoor dining program would continue year round, significantly reducing the hurdles restaurants previously experienced in paying for pricey permits and licenses to create seating along sidewalks. The announcement allowed outdoor dining to continue on parking spaces, closed city streets, and backyards.
October 6, 2020 — Zoned shutdown announced
With COVID-19 cases back on the rise in parts of the city, and across the country, Gov. Cuomo announced a measured shutdown approach based on micro-clusters of cases, just a day after he rebuffed a similar plan by Mayor de Blasio. Since they were first announced, zones have been added and removed from all five boroughs based on a rise in cases and a subsequent flattening of the curve in some parts. In the red zone districts, which signify the most severe outbreaks, restaurants are only limited to takeout and delivery, though no such zone currently exists in NYC.
October 8, 2020 — NYC releases zoned shutdown map
Confusion ensued following the state’s announcement about the shutdown zones, but a map released by the city two days later gave a more detailed breakdown on areas where restaurants had to contend with additional shutdown measures. This map continues to be the most up-to-date method of tracking closed parts of the city.
October 18, 2020 — COVID-19 surcharge begins
Following City Council approval in September, restaurants and bars in NYC got the go ahead to add an up to 10 percent surcharge on diners’ bills during the pandemic to help make up for lost revenue. The measure continues to be controversial amongst restaurant owners, but it will remain in effect until 90 days after establishments can offer indoor dining at full capacity.
October 22, 2020 — President Trump calls NYC a ghost town
During the final presidential debate, Donald Trump referenced the city’s restaurants while referring to it as a ghost town. On Twitter, New Yorkers acknowledged the devastating hit to the industry, but highlighted the vibrant scenes restaurateurs had created despite the obstacles they faced and the lack of aid provided by the Trump administration.
October 30, 2020 — Half-capacity indoor dining uncertain
Just two days before indoor dining in NYC was set to resume at half capacity, Gov. Cuomo declined to say if restaurants in the city would be allowed to do so, prompting more frustration among owners.
November 9, 2020 — Mayor de Blasio says indoor dining should be reevaluated
As COVID-19 cases continued to surge in NYC, the mayor suggested that indoor dining should be banned in NYC to prevent a full-scale outbreak like earlier in the spring. In the weeks that followed, health experts and parents across the city would question why schools were closed for in-person learning while restaurants remained open.
November 11, 2020 — New curfew for restaurants and bars
The state issued a new shutdown time for food establishments across the city. Restaurants and bars with liquor licenses are required to stop indoor and outdoor service at 10 p.m. every night. Takeout and delivery can continue after the curfew, but alcohol service is prohibited after 10 p.m.
November 19, 2020 — Indoor dining ban is imminent
Mayor de Blasio warned that a ban on indoor dining was likely to come the week after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Early December 2020 — NYC restaurants hibernate
With the colder weather making outdoor dining increasingly untenable, and the imminent shutdown of indoor dining, scores of restaurants across the city announced plans to hibernate for the winter with the hopes of reopening in the spring.
December 11, 2020 — Indoor dining officially banned (again)
Following a weeks-long uptick in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Cuomo finally moved to ban indoor dining indefinitely. The state said it would continue to monitor the situation, but did not indicate a timeframe for a return.
December 11, 2020 — COVID-19 data released
The state released coronavirus case data for the past three months, which showed that restaurants and bars accounted for about 1.43 percent of the cases recorded in the city. Private social gatherings made up nearly 74 percent of the cases prompting many restaurant owners to question the efficacy of the indoor dining shutdown.
December 15, 2020 — NYC restaurants brace for first winter storm
NYC moved to temporarily shutter outdoor dining in NYC for a couple of days as the city was hit with more than eight inches of snow. Outdoor dining was allowed to resume the following evening, but restaurant owners say rules surrounding outdoor dining in the winter are punishing for business.
December 17, 2020 — Fast food workers protections
The City Council passed a pair of bills that would prevent workers at fast food chains from being fired without cause.
December 18, 2020 — New restaurant regulations
New York introduced several more stringent guidelines meant to prevent diners from spending time indoors at establishments. The new rules called for orders to be placed on the phone or online and asked customers to wait outside for pick-up orders. Initially, diners were banned from using bathrooms, but the state immediately reversed course after a swift backlash.
December 21, 2020 — Sales tax deadline extended
It was set to expire on December 21, but Gov. Cuomo moved to extend the sales tax deadline for New York’s restaurants and bars to March 2021. The ruling applies to any part of the state where indoor dining is shut down.
December 21, 2020 — New stimulus bill leaves restaurants in the lurch
Though the $900 billion stimulus was eventually approved by President Trump, there was little support for the restaurant industry and it left out-of-work staffers with half the unemployments funds they received in the spring. The one-time stimulus payments have also been slashed across the board.
December 29, 2020 — NYC restaurants file suit, again
Several restaurants across the city have once against filed lawsuits against the state over the indoor dining ban. Many cite the low-transmission rate of the virus — based on state data — as a reason to remain open, and allege that the ban is unconstitutional.