November 28, 2021

Upstate NY restaurants can soon seat up to 75% capacity, but will that help them?

The latest easing up on restrictions for bars and restaurants in Upstate New York will…

The latest easing up on restrictions for bars and restaurants in Upstate New York will allow them to seat up to 75% of their normal capacity, an increase from the current limit of 50%. It could start as soon as March 19.

But will that really change anything? With so many other restrictions still in place, perhaps not.

“It doesn’t mean that much if you still have to have that six feet of separation,” said Bud Loura, a local dining industry consultant, referring to table spacing that is part of the current Covid-19 social distancing requirement. “You can only fit so many tables and so many people in that case. Many places can’t get close to 50% much less 75% as it is.”

He noted that schools in Onondaga County have recently been cleared to open with students allowed within three feet of one another. “If we could get to three feet, like the schools, that could make a difference,” Loura said.

Lauren Monforte, owner of the Beer Belly Deli on Westcott Street, has the same thought. “We can’t add another table and keep social distancing,” she said.

And if the requirement that all customers must be seated to eat or drink remains in effect, that presents another issue. One bar owner said he’d have to install a few dozen new stools to be able to hit the 75% mark with seating and that doesn’t make sense since the regulations change so frequently.

Still, the general feeling is that the restrictions are moving in the right direction for the industry.

“This is huge news regardless,” Nick Sanford, owner of Toss ‘n Fire Pizza in North Syracuse and Camillus, posted on Facebook. He said temporary barriers between tables can help, since the six feet separation can be waived if they are in place.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the capacity limit change Sunday. (It does not apply to New York City, where the maximum capacity remains 35%).

It’s the latest loosening up of the restaurant Covid restrictions that have been evolving for the past year. (See timeline below). It’s also the first since the state Legislature voted last week to roll back the authority Cuomo has to issue Covid regulations.

Cuomo said he will sign the legislation curtailing his emergency powers. That means the latest change will need to be reviewed by lawmakers.

Many other restrictions on restaurants are still in effect, including a statewide 11 p.m. curfew that requires all customers to be off the premises by that time.

That one’s important for Dave Ouderkirk, owner of Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge in Armory Square. He has been reluctant to reopen with the curfew, but planned to give it a try this week even before he knew of the increase in capacity limits.

“I’m far more interested in expanded hours than capacity at this point,” he said. “Fingers crossed on that.”

Sharon Washington, owner of the Jus Sum Jazz Lounge at 1965 W. Fayette St., said she plans to take advantage of the increased capacity at her club, which has several seating areas. Like Ouderkirk, however, she’s more worried about the curfew.

“We need the time for closing to change,” Washington said.

At Beer Belly Deli, Monforte said she’s not going to make an effort to adjust to 75%, noting all the changes that have occurred with the rules in the past year. Restaurants were closed last March, then reopened with limits in the summer. Then, last fall, bars and restaurants in Syracuse were placed in an orange zone, which banned indoor dining again until it was lifted in January.

“This whole thing is really giving the staff whip lash,” Monforte said. “(We’re) never able to plan from one week to the next, changing rules every week and having to explain that all to customers.”

For that reason, Monforte is closing Beer Belly from March 15 to the 22 to give her employees a paid week off.

“The mental health of workers in the restaurant industry is suffering,” she said.

Bud Loura, who assists industry owners through his company RestaurantQB, said there is a related obstacle facing restaurants that has little to do with Covid restrictions. They’ve been having difficulty finding employees as they return to more regular business operations, he said.

“Staffing is really the No. 1 issue,” he said. “It’s just tough to find workers right now. Everyone is feeling that.”

A TIMELINE OF CNY RESTAURANT/BAR RESTRICTIONS

March 12: The state’s first coronavirus-related restrictions on the restaurant and bar business are announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They limit capacity to no more than 50% of a business’s maximum occupancy (and prohibit all gatherings of more than 500 people.)

March 16: Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the shutdown of many businesses, including bars, restaurants, theaters, gyms and more. Starting March 17, bars and restaurants are allowed to serve food and drinks for carry out or delivery only.

May 27: Onondaga County officials clear the way for restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining only with restrictions. There is no table service — food must be picked by the customer and taken to the table. Tables must be spaced apart. This does not yet apply in most other areas of the state.

June 12: Restaurants in Central New York are allowed to reopen their dining rooms for indoor and outdoor service, with restrictions such as six-foot separation of tables, mask requirements except while seated and a limit of no more than 50% capacity. This action comes as Central New York entered Phase 3 of the state reopening plan but does not yet apply statewide.

July 16: Cuomo announces that all drink orders at reopened restaurants and bars must be accompanied by an order of food. It also limits direct orders of food and drinks from walk-up bars or counters at many restaurants.

Aug. 18: A ‘clarification’ in state guidelines leads bars, restaurants and similar venues to discover they are prohibited from advertising live entertainment or from charging customers to see entertainment through tickets or cover charges.

Mid-October: With no major changes coming in state rules and guidelines, bars and restaurants in Central New York start making adjustments for the coming winter, including offering outdoor tents, installing virus-killing UV lights or adding high-tech air filtration systems.

Nov. 9: Cuomo announces “yellow zone” restrictions for parts of Onondaga County, limiting tables at restaurants to no more than four people, and requiring them to close by midnight.

Nov. 13: A statewide order issued by Cuomo imposes a 10 p.m. curfew on all bars and restaurants with liquor licenses. All patrons must leave by 10 p.m.

Nov. 25: Dining rooms in parts of Syracuse, DeWitt, Solvay and Lyncourt must close to indoor seating under Cuomo’s order placing those areas in an orange zone. The county’s yellow zone is expanded to include much of the eastern and northern suburbs.

Jan. 14: Bars and restaurants in the state’s orange zones can reopen for limited indoor seating (under yellow zone rules) in the wake of a ruling in an Erie County court that found the indoor dining ban unreasonable. The court ruling technically applied only to the plaintiffs in Erie County, but a Cuomo aide said the ban would be lifted statewide, at least temporarily, in the interest of “uniformity and fairness.”

Jan. 27: Cuomo announces the lifting of all orange and yellow zone restrictions in most of the state. Only parts of New York City and parts of Newburgh in the Hudson Valley remain in color-coded clusters.

Feb. 11: Cuomo extends the statewide bar and restaurant curfew by one hour, from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m.

March 2: Leaders of the state Legislature reach an agreement to revoke the special emergency powers they granted to the governor in 2020 to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. That restricts his ability to issue new orders on such topics as the operation of bars and restaurants without specific Legislature approval. It does not immediately rescind the orders already in place.

March 5: Games like pool, darts, cornhole and even axe-throwing are once again allowed at bars and restaurants under an order Cuomo had issued the week before.

March 7: Cuomo announces all restaurants outside of New York City can allow up to 75% capacity starting March 19. That is subject to state Legislature review under the new restrictions on his emergency powers.

Don Cazentre writes for NYup.com, syracuse.com and The Post-Standard. Reach him at dcazentre@nyup.com, or follow him at NYup.com, on Twitter or Facebook.