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A 75% capacity limit does not mean much for most local restaurants

Chicken and Waffles from Merchants Grill.
James Brown
Chicken and Waffles from Merchants Grill.

State restrictions on restaurants are slowly being eased. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Sunday that restaurants, outside of New York City, can allow 75% of their capacity starting March 19. 

“The numbers are down,” said Cuomo, referring to the COVID-19 positivity rate. “When the numbers are down we adjust the economic reopening valve. It's not just good news for the restaurant owners. Remember, you have a lot of staff at restaurants, there are a lot of jobs, there are a lot of suppliers, so we'll go to 75%.”

The announcement has left restaurant owners like Kelly Bush cautiously optimistic. Bush owns the Union Tavern in Irondequoit and Marshall Street Bar and Grill near downtown Rochester. 

She was on the weekly call for members of the New York State Restaurant Association Monday. Bush said her colleagues were happy to have restrictions eased, but said remaining restrictions pose bigger issues.

“I think it means that things are going well and more people are getting vaccinated but as far as the six feet requirement, a lot of places can’t even get to 75% even if they wanted to,” said Bush. 

She said social distancing policies, like keeping tables six feet apart, cuts the amount of seats in restaurants by half. Bush said the new capacity rule does not change much for many Rochester restaurants, many of which are in small spaces like retrofitted houses. 

“I think this might be more helpful for some bars and breweries,” said Bush. “I think if we had more groups of maybe 10 people coming in together you could get people in that way. I think the thing that we’re looking for is for the curfew to be lifted or extended so that we stay open a little later. I think that will be a big thing for us.”

As of Valentine’s Day, bars and restaurants in New York state can stay open until 11 p.m.

Bush is hopeful that the Town of Irondequoit and city of Rochester continue efforts to allow businesses to expand outside and off their property, for the sake of safety and her bottom line.

Kelly Metras, owner of Nox and Salena’s in the Village Gate and president of the Rochester chapter of the New York Restaurant Association, said the changes are good but will do little for her businesses and other restaurants. She agrees with Bush’s assessment. 

To help businesses get through this part of COVID-19 pandemic and its aftershocks, Metras hopes regulations on restaurants selling alcohol to-go and expansion into outdoor spaces continue to be relaxed. Metras said its crucial because these businesses are barely getting by. She said pre-pandemic restaurants only made money when they were full. 

“Until this all goes away, it doesn’t matter if he (Cuomo) said I can put people in at 100% capacity and I can have people sit next to each other because I don’t know that people will want to,” said Metras.

“Your overhead stays the same, whether you’re empty and just doing take out or you have a full restaurant and you’ve got every single seat taken and you’ve got people waiting to sit down,” Metras continued. “Every single seat taken, waiting for people to sit down, that’s how you make any money. So if you’re not on a wait and you don’t have every seat taken, you’re not making a profit.”

As for Cuomo’s claims that the move will lead to more jobs, Metras is skeptical. She said she was only able to bring back half her staff after state restrictions kicked in a year ago. Metras said she doesn't expect that to change anytime soon.

Metras is hopeful that habits will change and fear will dampen as COVID-19 cases continue to drop. She expects 2021 to be rough and said that expected many restaurants to go under. Metras expects things to rebound in 2022.

“We already know how to get through a summer, we know how to get through it successfully. The grants have been really helpful, without the grants a lot more of us would be closed without the help we’ve been given.” said Metras. “Then it's going to be fall and winter, that’s when we’re really gonna know, like is this over? If it is over. That’s when you’ll start to see people really go out again.”

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.