Restaurants and bars in New York want to open sooner than planned. Here’s how they’d do it

ALBANY – Restaurants in upstate New York would have to likely wait a month before they could reopen under the state’s current plan.

They want the process sped up.

The Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association is urging state leaders to let restaurants and bars open sooner, saying they face ongoing economic distress and could reopen safely in phases.

They would also volunteer to be places to help the state in its efforts to do contact tracing by trying to identify anyone who may have been exposed to coronavirus.

“Our plan to reopen restaurants and bars requires businesses to ensure employee wellness, require social distancing by customers and employees and institute enhanced cleaning protocols,” the group said in a letter to Empire State Development and other leaders obtained by the USA TODAY Network New York.

Parts of upstate New York are starting to reopen businesses after they were shuttered March 22 due to the coronavirus pandemic which has killed more than 22,000 people in the state as the nation’s epicenter for the virus.

The reopening is happening in four phases: first with construction, manufacturing and curbside pickup for some retail stores.

While restaurants have been able to have curbside pickup and delivery during the stay-at-home order, they won’t be able to open their doors for dining until phase 3 of the state’s plan.

Each phase will happen in two-week intervals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said, or could be delayed further if the rate of infection were to spike in a region.

And he’s given no indication that he might shift the schedule for restaurants and bars, which have been hard hit by the closures.

“You start to increase economic activity,” Cuomo said Monday, “you have more people coming out of their homes, more people contacting other people and then you measure the impact of that increase with numbers — not with opinions, not with politics, not with partisanship.”

What restaurants are proposing to reopen in New York

The restaurant and tavern association doesn’t want to wait until phase three to reopen.

That would be four weeks away from when the first upstate regions — Central New York, Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, North Country, and Southern Tier — started to reopen last Friday.

So the group estimated that phase three in those regions wouldn’t hit until June 12 and until at least June 19 in western New York, which enters phase one Tuesday and the Capital Region, which is expected to reopen this week.

New York City and its suburbs have not yet hit all the metrics based on the virus’ spread and hospitalizations to start reopening.

The restaurant group proposed opening in phase 2 of the state’s plan at 50% occupancy of seated areas and 25% in non-seated areas of bars.

In phase 3, restaurants could open all of its seated areas; 75% of its outdoor non-seated areas; and 50% of its bar areas so long as social distancing is observed.

In phase 4, all areas could reopen, while non-seated areas would still need to keep social distancing, the group proposed.

All employees would have to wear masks when not able to maintain a 6-foot social distance, and each table of patrons would need to be seated 6 feet apart from other tables, as well as following all other state and federal health guidelines.

The tavern association is also asking the state to allow bars and restaurants to temporarily extend their premises to outdoor areas to ensure social distancing. It also wants restaurants and bars to be able to continue to sell “cocktails-to-go,” which is currently allowed with takeout orders.

“We commit to continuing our partnership with the State of New York to protect the health and safety of the state’s residents and visitors,” the group said.

Helping with contact tracing

New York is trying to create a broad contact tracing program to better track where the virus is spreading.

The group said in exchange for opening early, it would take steps to educate customers about the state’s tracing program and use records from employees and customers to help identify where the virus may have spread.

State officials have a number of factors to consider within each phase of the reopening, but they have not indicated any plans to let restaurants open sooner than already prescribed.

In New York City, there have been concerns over patrons hanging outside bars drinking to-go orders as they weather improves.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city would crack down on large groups outside bars.

“I’m not comfortable at all with people congregating outside bars,” he said.

“It’s the same rule. If you start to form groups of people and then you know, two, three, five and then it becomes six, it becomes 10, it becomes 15. That violates what we’re saying about social distancing. That puts lives in danger.”