Restaurants and bars in New York City have struggled throughout the pandemic, particularly when state restrictions prevented them from welcoming patrons inside during the early days of the health crisis. But in recent months, many establishments have been on the road to recovery, buoyed by a dining public eager to resume life the way it was, plus the slow but steady return of tourists to the city.
Now, all bets appear to be off.
The omicron variant has seen the city’s COVID case numbers spike to unprecedented levels in recent days, which has resulted in diners shunning restaurants and bars.
And the turn for the worse couldn’t have come at a worse time, since the holiday season is critical to the bottom line of most dining and drinking establishments.
Most worrisome are the weaker predictions for perhaps the biggest holiday night of all: New Year’s Eve, when places offer special menus — often with triple-digit price tags — to woo free-spending revelers.
“It’s a gut punch to the industry,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry trade group.
Proprietors say they’ve seen cancellations aplenty in the last few weeks, both for small parties and full-scale corporate gatherings.
At Gotham, a famed Manhattan establishment (formerly known as Gotham Bar and Grill) that shut down at the start of the pandemic and reopened in November of this year, Christmas Eve was particularly brutal, with half of the bookings being cancelled. Owner Bret Csencsitz says New Year’s Eve is looking tough as well, though he’s still planning to have a band on hand to entertain patrons for the festivities, which cost up to $350 a person.
Csencsitz adds that December is usually a solid month for Gotham, but that won’t be the case this year. “We’re now in a position where we will have lost money in December,” he said.
David Rabin, a partner in a number of New York bars and restaurants, including such popular haunts as Jimmy and the Skylark, has also faced more than his share of December no-shows. He says the situation has been compounded by the fact that his fully vaccinated employees have been contracting COVID, making it difficult to run things even if patrons do show up. At one point this month, Rabin had to close some of his restaurants and bars because of staffing issues.
“‘You go into an evening fully booked and then it’s massive last-minute cancellations’”
Rabin is hopeful that conditions will right themselves on all fronts by New Year’s Eve. But he says the biggest frustration at this stage is that there’s almost no predicting what will happen. “You go into an evening fully booked and then it’s massive last-minute cancellations,” he said.
Of course, New York is hardly the only city facing such issues. Across the country, restaurants and bars are also having to deal with the omicron wave and the no-shows and staff illnesses that have resulted from it.
At Geordie’s Restaurant and Lounge, located at the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix, Ariz., cancellations numbered in the hundreds across the two days before Christmas Eve. “I am hopeful that this will just be a temporary lull,” said Dolan Olson, director of food and beverage.
And in San Francisco, Moby Dick, a well-known bar in the city’s Castro District, closed temporarily just before Christmas, with proprietor Joe Cappelletti telling a local news outlet that “we didn’t want any more people getting sick” after one of his employees contracted breakthrough COVID.
Still, New York’s dining scene is singularly important — the city has more than 65 Michelin-starred restaurants — and can be viewed as a bellwether for the rest of the nation.
Stephen Zagor, a restaurant consultant based in the city, says if omicron continues to wreak havoc on the industry through New Year’s Eve, it could spell trouble.
A lot of restaurants and bars look to December as a “life preserver,” he said, noting that sales from the last month of the year can offset the traditionally sluggish winter period that follows. But what if that life preserver is taken out of the equation? Zagor says it’s inevitable that some establishments in the city won’t survive.
“January will be the end of the road,” he warned.