Can Hudson Valley restaurants bounce back if there is a second wave?

Jeanne Muchnick
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Editor's Note: COVID-19 killed tens of thousands in the Northeast, caused massive unemployment and wrecked the economy. In an ongoing series of stories, the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group examines what the government got wrong in its response to the virus, what policies eventually worked — and why we remain vulnerable if the coronavirus strikes harder in the fall.

If a second wave of the coronavirus occurs, it would be devastating to the Hudson Valley restaurant business which has just begun to see positive economic signs after months of closure.

"If a second wave happens, at the level of severity as the first time, it will be the end for many restaurants," said Milan Dobrolovic, co-owner of Norcina in New City.

Since March, many made lemons into lemonade, turning dining rooms into takeout and delivery stations, and empty parking lots into instant outdoor dining spaces. Owners updated online ordering systems and brought in industrial cleaning crews to sanitize their spaces and then re-educated and trained their staff in COVID-19 protocols.

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Giovanni (Gio) Cucullo, the owner/chef at Maria Restaurant in New Rochelle, is pictured near the outdoor eating area, July 16, 2020.

Most of the innovations, all for the good of the customer and the staff alike, are worth keeping as the pandemic wanes and if a second wave occurs.

"We're always thinking about what worked and what didn't and how we can expand on what we are offering in a safe way," said Christina Safarowic, co-owner of The Whitlock and Jay Street Cafe in Katonah.

Diners at Tequila Sunrise on Larchmont Avenue in Larchmont, enjoy their meal behind concrete barriers emblazoned with the logo, "Larchmont al fresco", July 16, 2020.

What failed?

Communication: Guidance from New York state on restrictions, requirements and guidelines was often muddled and confusing. Restaurants were literally left scrambling when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced outdoor dining in the Hudson Valley would be allowed in Phase 2 — initially it was scheduled for Phase 3 — leaving owners a scant five days to train their staffs, deep clean their spaces and reconfigure their spaces to comply with new guidelines.

Emergency funds: Loans provided through the government's Paycheck Protection Program Loans (PPP), were hard to apply for and even harder to acquire. Many restaurants unsuccessfully applied (though many reapplied and did get funding). 

An unintended consequence

The unemployment bonus: The $600 a week unemployment stimulus bonus was a game changer, but had an unintended result: Some staff didn't want to return to work, which made rehiring difficult as business began to ramp up. "People had no financial incentive to return to work," said Dobrolovic. "As a result, many chose to stay home for equal or even more money than they would make working."

Danny DeMartino, the owner of Mountain House Pizza gives thumbs up at the newly built takeout window to accommodate customers during the coronavirus quarantine in Sparkill April 8, 2020.

What worked?

Take out, delivery, curbside pickup: Pivoting quickly to takeout and contactless delivery helped save jobs and allowed some restaurants to keep serving their communities. Even places that never offered takeout found a way. The Hudson House in Nyack, for example, a fine dining restaurant, revamped its menu to ensure their food would travel well. The Mountain House Pizza in Sparkill, created a new drive-through window while Coffee Lab Roasters in Tarrytown turned its front door into a takeout window. 

To-go cocktails like peach iced tea, left, and pink lemonade, are some of the adult juice boxes sold at Horsefeathers in Tarrytown July 7, 2020.

Easing the law: During the pandemic, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) and New York State allowed alcohol to go, which created a new business stream for many.  "Customers were looking for a release and we were able to provide them that while also helping pay our bills," said Nick Nuccio who owns Norcina in New City with Milan Dobrilovic and Erick Carrasco. That changed in July, when Gov. Cuomo reversed his decision and required bars sell food in order to sell alcohol. "Absolutely it's going to hurt business," said James O'Toole, a bartender at Dunne's Pub in White Plains. "You can no longer keep a bar open unless the kitchen is open. So our hours will be shorter and less revenue."

We're in this together: Diners rallied to support the restaurant community, opting for takeout and donating meals to first responders to help keep businesses open. Once outdoor dining was allowed, diners in the Hudson Valley have been compliant, wearing masks, following social distancing guidelines and following bathroom protocols (which often means one at a time in the restroom).

Restaurant owners hope it continues and their customers remain understanding in tough times: The Whitlock's Christina Safarowic said it's hard to hear comments from customers about changes to service and offerings, for example a restaurant charging for bread. "It’s important that guests understand the absolute devastation that our particular industry has experienced," she said. 

Cooperation of local governments: Villages, towns and cities streamlined permits, lowered the cost of applications and allowed restaurants to expand into outdoor spaces not otherwise allowed before, such as private and city parking lots and other properties adjacent to their businesses. 

"Once they did a quick review for safety, they made the application and approval process really easy," said Dobrilovic. "Restaurants now have social distanced seating on sidewalks and parking lots all over the county."

It's helped, but more could be done. 

"Restaurant owners need more pedestrian-only setups like what they've done in Larchmont, Bronxville, Rye and Greenwich, Connecticut," said Giovanni Cucullo, the chef/owner of Pop's Espresso Bar and Maria Restaurant in New Rochelle. "And not just for restaurants.

"Every municipality and the landlords need to support their merchants in this endeavor."

And that means sooner rather than later. "We need to maximize this beautiful weather because if there is a second wave, without a heated patio many more restaurants will not make it through the fall/winter," he said.

Joe Turco, Daniel Berletic, Andrew Jorge and Eva Mulcahy enjoy their meal at an outdoor table in front of La La Taqueria on Larchmont Avenue in Larchmont, July 16, 2020.

What needs to be done for the second wave?

"A second wave would be the knockout punch to those restaurants that thought they were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel or those who were teetering on the edge of collapse," said Cucullo.

To help mitigate a second wave, all that's in place now, such as street dining, contactless ordering, reservation only-policies and strict social distancing, needs to continue.

Clearer guidelines need to be set for hosting social events, stressed Peter X Kelly, the chef/owner behind X2O Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers and Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers. Kelly thinks there should also be more help from the state. "I'd like to see state and county-funded 'Get out to eat and drive' tied to Hudson Valley tourism,'" he said. 

"Federal, state and local government must recognize that the hospitality industry and on premise restaurant dining specifically has been mortally hurt by the pandemic and will need to find ways to keep restaurants in business as they struggle through these very uncertain times."

Nick Nuccio, Executive Chef Erick Carrasco and Milan Dobrilovic are pictured with some of their pizzas at Norcina Restaurant in New City in 2018 pre-COVID-19.

The owners at Norcina feel there should be a tax credit or reimbursement available to restaurants to help cover the cost of refurbishing their spaces to comply with COVID-19 mandates. "Food industry owners are the ones bearing the whole cost for it," Dobrilovic said, listing masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning services, employee testing, disposable plateware and safer to-go containers as examples.

"An owner already stressing to make ends meet will be better able to provide a safer environment if cost isn’t an issue," he added.  

"Just like the last four months, we'll have to continue to take this one day at a time and adjust the best way we can on the fly."

Jeanne Muchnick covers food and dining. Click here for her most recent articles and follow her latest dining adventures on Instagram @lohud_food. Check out lohud's latest subscription offers here.