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Restaurants say they still need more help to survive pandemic

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Karen DeWitt/WXXI News
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El Loco Mexican Café in Albany.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York City restaurants can operate at 75% of capacity beginning May 7, bringing rules there in line with the rest of the state.

While COVID-19 restrictions are easing for restaurants and bars across the state, the industry, hit hard by the pandemic, said more needs to be done.

This week, the state Legislature ended an executive order by Cuomo that required food to be served with all alcoholic drink orders. It had been in place ever since bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen last summer.

The measure passed unanimously in both houses on April 28.

Sen. Ed Rath from the Buffalo area supported legal challenges from some western New York restaurants to end many of the restrictions, including limits on indoor dining capacity and curfews. 

“While this is a welcome step, it has taken far too long to get here,” Rath said on the Senate floor. “It shouldn’t take lawsuits and court hearings for our struggling restaurants to be heard.”

Rath said the state’s own data shows that restaurants and bars account for just a small percentage of coronavirus transmissions.

Hours before that vote, Cuomo announced that he, too, favored ending the food requirement. He also said he’d lift midnight curfews on restaurants and bars later in May.

Many restaurants and bars expressed relief.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, is also encouraged by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he intends to fully reopen the city by July 1.

But Rigie, in a statement, said government leaders can do more to help. They’d like to see a temporary rule that allows take-out alcoholic drinks be made permanent, saying it will be a while before everyone is comfortable dining inside.

Patrick Noonan runs El Loco Mexican Café in Albany and is the chair of a group of independently owned restaurants and bars. He said the take-out drink sales helped keep restaurants from closing and decreased the need for layoffs.

“Permanent to-go cocktail policy in New York would be most appreciated,” said Noonan, who added recent surveys show 63% of patrons intend to continue ordering cocktails to go, even when full indoor dining is allowed.

Assemblyman John McDonald, a Democrat from Cohoes, supports the bill, which is sponsored by Albany Assemblywoman Pat Fahy. He said ordering mixed drinks as part of his New Year’s Eve to-go dinner order was a nice treat during the long pandemic-restricted winter.

“It was great to have something professionally put together,” McDonald said.

The restaurant groups also want to limit charges by third-party delivery services. They said some services like Uber Eats and Grub Hub take up to a third of the bill for a food order.

And they said the federal and state bureaucracies need to be better at connecting restaurants to grants and loans that are now available in the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund. They said the money can be used for, among other things, improving indoor air quality in their establishments.