New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is a month away from enforcing his mask mandate for indoor venues like gyms and restaurants. While gyms across the city have gotten back to business in relative silence, the restaurant industry’s talking a different story from the top on down.
“Now we’re saying, get at least the first vaccination,” the mayor said during a news briefing this week. “Of course, the goal is to get everyone fully vaccinated, but get at least the first vaccination and you’ll be able to work or enjoy indoor dining, indoor fitness, indoor entertainment, concerts, movie theaters, etcetera. We know this is going to reach hundreds of thousands of people, convince them it’s time.”
Michael Sinensky––founder of NYC restaurants like Hudson Terrace, Sidebar, Village Pourhouse, Sushi by Bou, and SimpleVenue and now the CEO of PPE company WeShield––told the AmNews that while places like Whole Foods and Costco can handle the cost of the new mandates, small businesses may have a problem.
“Once again, small businesses are being shafted whereas larger businesses have more freedoms and control,” said Sinensky to the AmNews. “On average, the cost of PPE is $5 per person per day––a number that adds up very quickly and causes a huge hit to a company’s bottom line, especially when money is already tight. That’s why PPE shortages and the price-gouging many dishonest distributors were doing were even more detrimental to businesses in the struggling hospitality industry––they were basically kicking a horse that was already down.”
Another area that finds itself at a crossroads in the service industry is employment. Owners have complained about not being able to hire people due to a lack of desire to work. Some reports might have given reasons to why workers aren’t coming back.
According to the National Restaurant Association, as of 2018, there were 50,123 eating and drinking establishments in the city that generated $51.6 billion in sales. At the time, nine percent of all employed New Yorkers in the state (865,000) worked in the restaurant and food service industry.”
But the numbers hide a different story, according to collaborative 2019 report by 32BJ, the National Employment Law Project, Fast Food Justice and the Center for Popular Democracy, 65% of those surveyed workers said they were never given a reason as to why they got fired or were told by their employers that they didn’t need a reason to fire them.
Another reason involves simple economics. Workers in the industry tend to not be paid a living wage in the city. The current minimum is $15 and that’s the result of a decade-long coordinated pro-fast food worker campaign. The fast-food giant McDonald’s announced this week that they’d increase their minimum wage to $15…by the year 2024. And restaurant employees usually don’t have a 401(k) or benefits of any kind.
But that wage increase was only reserved for fast-food workers.
Minimum wage for tipped workers, like restaurant employees, is different. The minimum wage for service employees in New York increased to $12.50 in 2021. For tipped food service workers in New York? Ten dollars. But that leaves out wait staff. Waiters, along with elected officials, successfully pushed back against a $15 minimum wage fearing it would lead to less tips and lower pay.
One now former service worker told the AmNews that wait staff, and others are singing yet another tune. One called “why go back?”
“It’s just not worth it,’ said Duane Dawson to the AmNews. “Outdoor seating means extra setup and breakdown, while COVID restrictions and what-not mean lower capacity and thus lower earning potential. And that’s before factoring in personal risk of exposure. Lastly, probably lower quality customers, based on how people ‘that prefer outside’ are historically trashier guests with a higher sense of entitlement than others.”
Dawson then relayed a personal anecdote during a trip to the Upper East Side. “I recently spoke with a bar owner on the UES, singing that ‘no one wants to work’ song,” said Dawson. “But when I inquired as to what incentives he was offering and/or what shifts he was taking himself the answer was none.”
Andrew Rigie, executive director, NYC Hospitality Alliance, called on the federal government to “replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and educate establishments in how to enforce the new mask mandates come September.
“Keeping hospitality workers and customers safe from COVID-19 is an essential step toward protecting public health and preventing harsher restrictions that many restaurants and bars would not survive,” Rigie stated. “The city’s outreach needs to target education and training for establishments to implement these policies, as they pose operational and economic challenges for understaffed restaurants, bars, and nightclubs struggling to recover.
The mask mandate has ruffled the virtual feathers of owners, service workers and government officials alike, but patrons might end up having the biggest say in how things will go.
Merv Matthew, a born-and-raised New Yorker who’s currently an instructional associate professor at the University of Mississippi, told the AmNews that he approves of the mandate, but remains skeptical about the process.
“Why would a mask mandate not go into effect for another month?” Matthew asked the AmNews. “The need for mitigation measures is legit. I just don’t get the timeline.”
“I don’t buy into any of this bulls–t,” said Long Island-native Stephanie Felpo-Ratliff.
Another patron summed up his views quickly for the AmNews.
“Well, if they can’t cook, they going to get food,” Justin Crespo, a Bronx native, said.
With the possible ball of confusion surrounding the mask mandate, workers, employers and (some) customers are having a hard time dealing with City Hall’s edicts. Sinensky advised New Yorkers to be patient as businesses fly blind trying to adapt to the new normal.
“Restaurants and gyms did not have ample time to prepare for vaccine checks––and nor should they be forced to police their willfully paying customers,” said Sinensky. “This just went into effect, so what I’d recommend for diners or gym goers is to expect waits. Bring your vaccine card if you can––or a photo of it––and expect people to not know what to do to check. With these new requirements, it will take time for businesses to get in sync, so you’ll need to exercise patience as everyone adapts.”