A dozen people were waiting in line when Imani in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, opened for brunch on a recent Saturday morning. That evening, diners packed the sidewalk tables at Anton's , a cafe and wine bar in Greenwich Village.
In Jackson Heights, Queens, two restaurants across the street from each other, Angel Indian and Phayul Himalayan, put out outdoor seating and were eagerly awaiting customers.
Restaurants, a pillar of life in New York City, were devastated by the pandemic shutdown, and the move to allow outdoor dining has provided a tenuous lifeline for the business and a boon to residents desperate for a sliver of normalcy. Nearly 10,000 restaurants have set up outdoor seating since July, even as the ban on indoor service continues.
Still, the industry is in crisis.
Though outdoor dining has been a hit with patrons, restaurant owners said they were operating at a fraction of regular seating capacity. Many are staying open only because of the federal paycheck protection program, which supports payroll, and because they have not paid their full rent in months. A local emergency law shields restaurant owners from personal liability for commercial leases.
"It is very hard, hard times for me, I only survive here," said Amritpal Singh, owner of Angel Indian in Queens, who spent $3,000 to upgrade his outdoor dining area. "It's not like before."
Hanging in the balance is a vital New York City industry that before the pandemic employed more than 300,000 people, from recent immigrants to musicians, artists, writers and actors who help define the city as a cultural hub.
Without them, New York City may become less of a destination, and more people may choose to live in other cities or the suburbs.
Some 160,000 people in the bar and restaurant industry in the city remain out of work, according to July federal employment data , and nearly 1,300 restaurants closed permanently between March and July.
During the week of Aug. 14, New York City restaurants were doing about 23 percent of last year's volume in terms of people seated, according to reservation data from Resy , the reservation app used by many outdoor dining restaurants. That is still very low, but the week before that it was 18 percent. In mid-July it was 10 percent.
Bar Sardine in the West Village regularly has long waits for its six outdoor tables, but it is among the growing number of New York restaurants that have announced they will close permanently because of the pandemic. Next Thursday will be its last service.
Gabriel Stulman, who also owns eight other Manhattan restaurants, said Bar Sardine is only doing 30 percent of normal business, and its landlord refused to negotiate on rent. Without additional government relief, he predicted that many restaurants will close in the coming months if indoor dining remains barred.
"I don't want to be dramatic, but this is apocalyptic for the industry," he said. "If it's not safe to open, I understand that — I'm a team player. But you got to do something about my rent, my payroll. You got to answer these questions."
Less than half of the 25,000 restaurants and bars in New York are taking part in the outdoor dining program, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. The rest are either closed for now or making do with workarounds, from delivery to catering to retail shops to charity work like preparing meals for soup kitchens.
The alliance, and some restaurant owners, are pushing Mayor Bill de Blasio to set a date to open indoor dining, arguing that the city has met the state's virus benchmarks — positive test rates have been hovering near 1 percent for weeks. They point out that other areas of New York State have allowed limited indoor dining without raising infection rates.
But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio are not yet budging.
"We have to see a lot more improvement in fighting this virus," Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday.
Some restaurants have taken matters into their own hands: The State Liquor Authority has fined or suspended liquor licenses for dozens of city restaurants and bars that permitted indoor dining and drinking illegally.
Other owners agree that indoor dining poses particular challenges in New York City, where many restaurants operate in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces. They are asking for additional government support, such as assistance with renegotiating untenable leases.
"Indoor dining scares me," said Annie Shi, an owner of King in Greenwich Village, which is serving about half as many patrons as it normally does, with about a third of the staff. "If you look at other countries, a lot of the cases come from restaurants and bars, and I don't think it's worth that risk."
Some restaurants have found relative success in their transformations. Olmsted in Prospect Heights reinvented its yard and sidewalk into a boozy summer destination with more outdoor tables than it had indoor ones, and opened a food shop.
But other restaurants, near crosswalks or bus stops, found that they lacked space to add more than a few outdoor tables, or couldn't add any at all.
And the end of October looms, when the city's weather cools, and the expanded outdoor dining program and the cushion provided by the federal paycheck protection program are due to end. If indoor dining is still not deemed safe by then, many restaurant owners said they were not sure how they will hold out.
"Right now we are in a holding pattern," said Ann Redding, who last week announced that she and her husband would not reopen their wildly popular NoLIta restaurant, Uncle Boons .
For now, they are focusing on keeping afloat their newer restaurant, Thai Diner, which has more frontage for outdoor tables.
"At Thai Diner, we are paying the bills with the outdoor situation," Ms. Redding said, "but what happens next we don't know. It's the uncertainty that's exhausting, it's just emotionally exhausting. And the only thing you can do is go with the flow and pivot."
The bump from outdoor dining has been as much psychological as financial, allowing restaurants to call back thousands of furloughed and laid-off staff, owners said.
Safety remains an ongoing concern, in part because it is rare to see seated patrons in masks , even though state and city health laws recommend they be worn whenever people are not eating or drinking.
At Black Iris in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the manager, Ahmed Mohamed, 30, said that while he's grateful for his job, he's concerned for his own health and that of his family because of customers who don't wear masks.
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"I try to be as careful as I can, but what doesn't make me feel safe is how people act," Mr. Mohamed said.
He said he was particularly upset by patrons who come in to use the bathroom unmasked.
At King in Greenwich Village, diners order by QR code, staff wear face shields and patrons are specifically asked to put on masks when staff come to the table.
The vast majority of diners comply, but some have rolled their eyes and resisted.
"We've had instances where people put on a mask for the white server, but not the Latino food runner," the co-owner, Ms. Shi, said. "There's this expectation that when I sit down at a table, the virus doesn't exist."
Still, the outdoor scene is helping the city come back to life. In Williamsburg, Berry Street sometimes has a Mardi Gras feel. Outdoor reservations at the pasta restaurant Lilia are booked out for weeks.
At Delhi Heights Restaurant and Bar in Jackson Heights, Suhan Shrestha, 25, an Uber driver, said he relished sitting outside and hearing the sounds of the city again. He took to outdoor dining without hesitation. "We have to come out one day," he said.
But for every restaurant getting by, another is struggling.
Gertie , a Los Angeles-inspired spot in Williamsburg, had a busy Friday night because a local D.J. spun tunes and brought her friends, the owner, Nate Adler, said.
But on Saturday, few came for brunch.
The heartbreak, Mr. Adler said, is that Gertie was doing well before the pandemic.
"I'm just really sick of spending money to make nothing," said Mr. Adler, who estimated he had spent $5,000 on his outdoor patio setup.
In Jackson Heights, the epicenter of the pandemic in April, stores are open again and some street life has returned. But outdoor dining has been slower to catch on, and some workers said serving outside was both more difficult and paid less.
Lobsang Yiknyen, 30, who works as both manager and server at Phayul Himalayan Restaurant, said the extra work included carrying orders for longer distances between the kitchen and tables, and hauling in the elaborate outdoor setup every night.
Before the pandemic, the restaurant had 10 employees; now it has five. Tips are down too, hovering between 10 percent and 12 percent.
"It's hard to serve the people and get to the people on time," he said. "They get stressed."
Across the street, at Angel Indian Restaurant on 37th Road, Mr. Singh said the few tables he had set up under umbrellas had not brought in much business.
His sales, he said, are still down by 70 percent from pre-pandemic levels, and he credits delivery, not outdoor dining, for his survival.
"Customers give me good support, my neighborhood is supporting me," he said. "That's why I'm standing here."
Matthew Sedacca, Nate Schweber and Alex Traub contributed reporting.
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