Virus Outbreak New York

Imani Williams sanitizes tables June 29, 2020, at Junior's Restaurant in New York City, during a time period when the Brooklyn restaurant was open for takeout service and outdoor dining only.

(The Center Square) – Concerned that more restaurants across the state may close as COVID-19 restrictions linger, Republicans in the New York state Senate announced a plan to “reset” the struggling industry.

The plan includes a series of bills designed to give relief to businesses within the state’s hospitality industry. At a press conference in Albany backed by other members of the delegation, state Sen. George Borrello (R-Sunset Bay) cited New York State Restaurant Association figures from December indicating more than 8,300 restaurants have closed their doors.

That’s meant a loss of more than 365,000 jobs, with Borrello and other Republicans pinning the blame squarely on the limitations or bans on indoor dining put in place by the Cuomo administration.

“This is truly an emergency,” Borrello said. “Every day that passes without a change in direction is a lost opportunity to help stabilize this devastated industry.”

Borrello’s bill would give small businesses a one-year exemption from higher unemployment insurance rates if their layoffs were caused by COVID-19. It would also extend the amount of time small businesses would have to pay various taxes and give a year’s extension on liquor licenses.

The bill would keep food delivery service providers from increasing fees beyond what they charged before March 1, 2020.

Other GOP-backed bills include a proposal by state Sen. Mike Martucci, R-New Hampton, would direct fines collected by the State Liquor Authority into a small business relief fund. A bill from state Sen. Mario Mattera, R-St. James, would create a checkoff box on tax forms allowing taxpayers to direct money to a relief fund.

“Our restaurants and hospitality businesses are vital to our state’s economy and many of them are struggling just to keep their doors open and their workers employed,” Mattera said.

Republicans may face an uphill battle in getting the bills through the Legislature, as Democrats hold supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly.

The restaurant closures have come as New York has one of the stricter policies for indoor dining in the country. Upstate venues can welcome patrons at 50 percent capacity, but they must close by 10 p.m. The policy is more stringent in New York City, where no indoor dining is allowed.

Of the restaurants that have closed during the pandemic, Borrello said about 4,500 – or 54 percent – are in New York City.

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Borrello zeroed in on Cuomo’s focus on hospitalizations. The senator noted New York’s hospitalizations for COVID-19 outpace Florida’s, and Florida does not have similar policies in place for their restaurants.

“This is not a policy that is working for our economy or for the public health,” he said.

However, it doesn’t appear that either Cuomo or New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is willing to back down and reopen indoor dining anytime soon, even though there are other parts of the state where the virus is more prevalent.

After the GOP senators spoke, de Blasio said at his daily briefing Tuesday morning that the city’s dense population plays a major factor in why the restriction remains.

“We were the epicenter of this crisis,” the mayor said. “We lost tens of thousands of New Yorkers. We're going to be really careful and smart about when we let people get back together in close proximity with their masks off because they're eating and drinking.”

The Senate Republican plan comes just a couple of days after the New York State Restaurant Association called on the state to follow other states in loosening restrictions. Specifically, the group wants the curfew extended to midnight, and it also wants indoor dining to resume once again in New York City.

New York City restaurants were able to offer indoor dining at 25 percent capacity from the end of September until mid-December, when Cuomo shut it down as hospitalization rates rose during the holiday period.

Melissa Fleischut, the association’s president and CEO, told The Center Square she reviewed the Republicans’ news release and found a lot of “good piece” in their plans.

One initiative that would help is a fund for businesses. Fleischut said her group has been focusing on getting that aid at the federal level.

“I think there's desperately still a need, at least for New York restaurants, from the federal government,” she said. “And if the state can provide some sort of funding, that would be fantastic.”

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