How to Reopen Your New York Restaurant After Covid-19

Back of House Staff | May 6, 2021, 09:00 AM CDT

How to Reopen Your New York Restaurant After Covid-19

What is even the point of New York without its restaurants? The closure of New York City’s restaurants in many case pre-dated the state mandates, such was the severity of the pandemic in the city in March of 2020. New Yorkers tided themselves over with the revelation that is take-out booze (cocktails to go! hope they’re here to stay!) while restaurants ramped up their delivery options and carpentered thousands of makeshift sidewalk dining areas.

It’s a new day for dining in New York, even if your favorite dive bar or Midtown sandwich shop didn’t survive the pandemic. If you’re getting your restaurant back up and running in the Empire State, then mazel! Whether you’re upstate or in the City That Never Sleeps (so it can keep eating, mind you), these are the resources you’ll need to get in line with Covid protocols while coming back to greet your favorite eaters. Guaranteed they missed ya.

New York state guidelines and rules during Covid

In the city, indoor dining is back … sorta. The cap is 50%, and you’ll probably find plenty of customers who’d just as soon eat outdoors. Still, it’s go time.

Legally to reopen the state requires that you develop a safety plan — you’ll find that template here — and post it at work. You also have to read the New York State guidelines for indoor food services, a dense 20 pages of new directives that, while mostly pretty intuitive by this point, amounts to a legit slab of homework. Once you’re done, you have to affirm with an online signature that you've read it all.

Some big takeaways: The state is still expecting you to get one person from each party you seat to sign up for contact tracing. Parties can’t be more than 10 people. Closing time is 11pm. Your HVAC systems will need to be in top form. Your staff is going to have to keep the place super clean, wear PPE, and be mindful of any possible cross-contamination. And you’re going to have to screen your employees for Covid symptoms when they arrive for work. It’s a gantlet.

Technically you still have to sell food to anyone who’s ordering a drink. It’s weird. Literally a tiny bag of chips does the trick. One more thing to worry about.

But it’s not all bad! So many people are opting to eat outdoors that New York City has issued an entire roster of rules regarding dining with dogs. Yes, that’s even more rules. On the bright side, though: dogs.

Get the grants and new fees meant to help your restaurant

Strap in and get ready to apply for your share of the federal dollars that will flow through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). If you haven’t gotten started, do that pronto. It takes a few days to get set up in the federal payment system, and it’s a first-come, first-serve deal.

In case you needed a nudge, Sen. Chuck Shumer appeared at a midtown fish bar to urge restaurateurs to apply for their piece of the $29 billion grant package. "Hopefully, at some point in June, money will be in our restaurateurs' hands so they can stay alive and stay open until God willing Covid is over and the streets are full and the restaurants are full once again," he said. So, June, hopefully?

One update at the register: You have the option to add a 10% Covid surcharge to the ticket if you want. That provision will sunset 90 days after the city goes back to 100% capacity indoor dining. Not every restaurant is taking advantage of the measure, so weigh it carefully.

How to update your restaurant policies for Covid

The state has condensed its key instructions into a swift, dense 8-page form that you’ll want to use as your reopening checklist. Most of this stuff is just health code 101, and a lot of it is suggested best practices. But of course we’re in a new era of hospitality being lower-touch, socially distanced, and fastidiously sanitized.

You’re also entering an era in which the meaning of taking a sick day has shifted. You’re going to need to come up with protocols to send someone home, or keep them from coming in, with a live or suspected case of Covid. The federal changes to sick-leave policy are worth brushing up on, and the Department of Labor has a flyer explaining those updates to your staff.

If you’re the sort who wants to see what other states are up to, California’s reopening guidance might be even more comprehensive than New York’s. 

How to train your restaurant staff on new Covid policies

Speaking of posters, the state has the hookup. Download one-pagers that promote proper mask wearing, encourage diners to take some basic precautions, and let people snitch on Covid safety violations. (Is there anything QC codes can’t do?)

The National Restaurant Association has posted a course of Covid safety videos (some in Spanish as well as English) to help you get your staff clued into the new best practices. Many of those will revolve around PPE: fitting it, using it, throwing it out when it’s dirty. Fortunately most of your staff has already been trained to harbor a healthy degree of paranoia around sanitation. Such is life in restaurants.

Truly this year has been such a whirlwind that you’re probably already a pro at this stuff. If anything, the past year has been a slow move toward a version of dining that may wind up being more permanent than temporary, finally. New York City’s announcement in September that outdoor dining would become a year-round fixture, for one, allowed restaurateurs to plan, to coordinate, and to invest in ways that were simply impossible a few months earlier.

How to let customers know you're back, baby

There’s a whole set of questions surrounding marketing these days, given how fraught the entire experience of dining has become, so brush up on the latest digital marketing techniques for your restaurant. New York was the first American city to really catch the brunt of the pandemic, so diners here have been freaked out since March of 2020. They’re compliant. They’re also exhausted.

If you convey a sense of enthusiasm, brightness, cheer, and overall good vibes in your Instagram stories and your Facebook ads, that’ll go a long way. Everyone has been living on delivery: roll out something unique to give people even half a reason to leave their apartment, and you’ll have butts in the seats in no time.

[Photo by Marcus Herzberg from Pexels]

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