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NY Restaurants Struggle To Stay Afloat During Pandemic

October brings colder weather in the Northeast, and restaurants that have survived by offering outdoor dining during the summer of COVID-19 are bracing for a long winter.

Patrick Noonan is the owner of El Loco Mexican restaurant. It’s been in business since 1986, in Albany’s arts district.

It’s a long, cozy interior with a classic 1860’s building with a tin ceiling, warm colored wall hangings and images of Frida Kahlo. The restaurant is known for its big baskets of chips, perfect for sharing, with salsa that comes in three levels of heat to match, or challenge, a patron’s palate.

Noonan says it’s a go-to spot for first dates that sometimes lead to a romantic future.

“It turns into, ‘Hey will you cater our wedding?’” Noonan said.

Joining us is Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, who is championing the survival of restaurants in her district.

“This was one of the first places my husband brought me,” said Fahy, who moved to Albany from Chicago twenty years ago.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the formerly closely packed, cozy tables are spaced widely apart, and the interior feels more Spartan.

Most of the action now takes place outside, with a dining space on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, strung with lights and colorful flags. There’s also a back patio. It’s very inviting on a warm fall afternoon, but Noonan is looking ahead. He’s invested in propane space heaters, but he realizes they are no match for the ice and snow that’s coming, soon.

“We are going to push this thing out front as long as we can,” said Noonan, who says he’s even thought about giving out courtesy blankets.

Despite his efforts, Noonan’s doing just a fraction of his former business at El Loco. Half of the workers there have resigned, saying they no longer feel safe interacting with customers.

He’s having even worse luck at Debbie’s Kitchen, the longtime Albany favorite across the street that he revived two years ago. With the pandemic, the popular catering service associated with the sandwich shop disappeared. Debbie’s was forced to close and all of the staff was laid off. Even at the Ben and Jerry’s that Noonan owns next door, prospects are looking grim as we approach winter -- a downtime for ice cream sales.

He says many restaurants will not survive much longer.

“The snow will start flying any day now,” he said. “You’re really going to see a lot of places close come January, February.”

Noonan says the “grind” is taking its toll.

“You’re flying by the seat of your pants for the last six, eight months now,” said Noonan, who said there’s likely six to eight more months to go before the pandemic eases.

“How long can people keep up this fight?” he said. 

The New York State Restaurant Association predicts that two thirds of restaurants in the state will close their doors by the end of this year without financial help. 90% of restaurants in New York City could not meet their August rent payments. Noonan says government aid can make a huge difference, and he wants Congress, which has not provided a relief package since April, to approve another round of PPP loans or a grant program. 

He says tax breaks would also help. He still has to pay the same amount of property and school taxes on the building, even with reduced income.

Assemblywoman Fahy is pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to ease up on some of the rules limiting indoor dining. Currently, eating establishments in New York City are restricted to 25% of capacity, and for the rest of the state it’s 50%.

“Give them 75% (capacity) inside where they can still maintain six feet apart,” said Fahy, who said Plexiglas dividers could also be used as an alternative in small spaces.

“But the Plexiglas, one sheet of it, can cost $400,” Fahy said.

Fahy would like to see the state offer subsidies for restaurants to buy the Plexiglas dividers.

So far, Governor Cuomo has not been open to changing the rules for restaurants, saying he’s more concerned with protecting the public against the spread of the virus.

Noonan says offering take-out dinners and alcohol drinks keeps him in business and preserves the restaurant’s relationship with its customers, though he complains that third party delivery services eat up to 30% of sales. Noonan, who comes from a family of restaurateurs, says he does not plan to give up.

“And we are having to evolve, and I think that’s the name of the game right now,” Noonan said. “You have to evolve or die.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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