A menu of policy ideas for NYC’s restaurant and nightlife recovery
New York City’s hospitality industry continues to face staggering challenges amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Several thousand restaurants, bars, and nightclubs across the five boroughs have permanently shuttered and recent data show the sector still employs 75,000 fewer people compared to early 2020.
And only 35 percent of New York restaurants that applied for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund were awarded grants, so the federal government must replenish this emergency relief fund now so businesses can get the support they desperately need.
As the industry fights to recover, New York City’s newly elected and veteran public officials have a civic responsibly to support the recovery of the Big Apple as the restaurant capital of the world and The City That Never Sleeps. We applaud Mayor Eric Adams for following through on a campaign pledge within days of taking office to reduce and eliminate fines on small businesses.
Now we are offering a partnership and a blueprint for our city’s elected representatives to support our industry’s comeback, which was developed based on countless conversations with hospitality business owners and operators over the past 22 months.
Supporting Small Business
Throughout the pandemic, the city passed important polices to support restaurants like suspending enforcement of personal liability guarantees in leases and capping excessive third-party delivery fees. It’s important that our elected officials build on that progress and implement policies and programs that address commercial lease support, rents and high taxes that jeopardize the longevity of mom-and-pop and medium-sized businesses.
The city must streamline the permit and licensing process, coordinate inspections, and implement technology that will enhance the way businesses interact with government agencies, including real-time alerts on changing requirements.
Making the Open Restaurants Program Permanent
Eleven thousand businesses signed up to participate in the Open Restaurants Program, it saved an estimated 100,000 industry jobs, shielded scores of businesses from permanently closing, enlivened and reimagined our streets, and brought family and friends safely back together after months of isolation.
Mayor Adams and the new City Council inherited the Open Restaurants Program, still in its temporary emergency status, and it’s critical the promised transition to permanency becomes a top priority. Thousands of restaurants now operating outdoor dining are depending on it, along with the countless fans of dining alfresco.
The permanent program must be standardized, sustainable, and equitable, with clear and easy-to-follow guidelines and reasonable fees to participate. It should address issues important to the community such as accessibility, aesthetics, cleanliness, sound, and the interaction of sidewalk and roadway dining with other uses of public space.
This challenging yet exciting opportunity should be viewed as a catalyst for more outdoor arts and performances, retail, enhanced transportation, and containerization of our city’s trash, as a requisite to the city’s recovery and rebirth.
Getting Government Right
As a lover of city’s nightlife that generates $35 billion in annual economic activity and incalculable social and cultural value, Mayor Adams can expand the Office of Nightlife and work with the City Council to implement policies recommended by them and the independent 14-member Nightlife Advisory Board they appoint. These recommendations provide a comprehensive roadmap to support business owners, workforce, patrons, performers, and neighbors.
Similar support should be provided to the city’s Food & Beverage Industry Partnership. Both entities should be further empowered to inform the hospitality industry of programs and policy making through enhanced, ongoing communication within city government.
Our borough presidents must ensure the hospitality industry is represented by appointing more individuals from the sector to the 59 community boards. These boards make recommendations to agencies whether they should approve, deny, or add stipulations to liquor licenses and sidewalk cafes, and they influence other important policies that impact small businesses, yet they lack adequate representation from New Yorkers with restaurant and nightlife sector perspective.
To strengthen this vital, hyper-local level of government, more people with experience in the business of restaurants and nightlife must be represented.
NYC Is the Culinary Capital
We must further invest in NYC & Company’s mission to promote the five boroughs for leisure and business travel around the globe. With $73.6 billion spending created by New York tourism in 2019 its clear many businesses need tourism to return, in order to recover.
While a hybrid of remote and in-person work is the future of the economy, the workforce can be incentivized to return to their offices more by launching a “City Bucks” campaign, providing employees a stipend to be used at local restaurants, bars, barbershops, and other businesses, which stimulates the local economy.
The city should work with Business Improvement Districts and community groups to support and expand upon their great street activations, whether art installations, musical performances, or sporting events — they should engage everyday New Yorkers and our city’s icons and celebrities to participate.
Without a return to the office, the Comptroller’s Office has estimated the city could lose $111 million in annual sales tax revenue that funds essential services which equates to billions of unspent dollars at neighborhood businesses.
Public Health, Safety and Sanitation
As Mayor Adams says, “Public safety is the prerequisite to prosperity.” That’s why our city’s streets, subways and buses must be safe, clean, and well-maintained. A city with a dangerous and dirty reality and/or public perception is challenging to change, so we need an aggressive pro-NYC public relations campaign, with polices to match.
As Omicron cases continue to decrease, the city must proactively remind people that New York is open and our restaurants, music venues, event companies, and other establishments desperately need their support now. COVID-19 is with us for the unforeseen future, and as a people we must balance living with the virus, while living our lives and partaking in social and economic activity.
People have different risk tolerances, and that’s OK, but we need our elected leaders to clearly communicate risk, not cause unnecessary panic, while encouraging people to support local businesses.
And while COVID-19 continues to impact New York, the city must reverse the ban on propane heating sources used to comfort patrons dining outdoors during colder winter temperatures, provide free and accessible COVID-19 tests for industry workers, and subsidize the pandemic safe pay law so that workers can stay home when exposed to the virus and employers aren’t stuck with more financial burdens.
The city should also provide metrics for determining when requirements like proof of vaccination for indoor dining will be lifted because no matter how well-intended, the policy poses operational and financial challenges to some businesses, particularly those in communities with lower vaccination rates and high hesitancy. And, with a variant like Omicron that’s transmissible among the vaccinated (although symptoms are less severe), and the customer vaccine requirement hasn’t been in effect long enough to measure its influence on getting more people vaccinated, the policy must be continually justified or modified.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Even with the city’s restaurants and bars employing 75,000 fewer people than before the pandemic, and high unemployment, the service industry in the five boroughs is struggling with staffing shortages. This creates an opportunity for city and non-profit leaders to expand hospitality industry training and job placement programs, especially because it’s an industry that employs people from all walks of life and experience levels. Supporting job creation must be a priority for the city, and creating sustainable jobs must be a priority for hospitality businesses.
Reinstate Drinks To Go
While a matter of the state, not the city, it’s too timely not to include: Governor Hochul announced her support for permanently bringing back Drinks To Go during her first State of the State address and included it in her proposed executive budget. This policy was extremely popular with consumers, and the revenue it generated for restaurants and bars was a lifeline for months during the pandemic. Small business owners need the certainty of this revenue stream. Delivery and takeout will continue to be an integral part of the restaurant business, so this source of ongoing revenue is important to so many restaurants and bars.
Members of the New York State Assembly and Senate representing New York City must play a leading role in Albany ensuring that Drinks To Go legislation is passed very soon.
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