NYC COVID Test Rates Stay Below 3%, While Lower East Side Infections Remain Low

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New York City parents got a reprieve, at least for another day or two, after the mayor announced Saturday that the coronavirus 7-day positivity rate dropped to 2.47%. Just 24 hours earlier, there were warnings that it could edge up to 3%, which would have triggered the closure of the city’s public schools as early as Monday. While 300,000 students will still be allowed to attend in-person classes to start the week, health experts say it’s inevitable that NYC will hit that arbitrary 3% number sometime in the next several days.

On the Lower East Side and in Chinatown (zip code 10002), positive test rates have remained lower than the citywide average. According to NYC Department of Health data, our positive test rate over the past 7 days has been 1.89%.  As points of comparison, the 7 day average in Breezy Point was 5.29% in the past 7 days (no community was higher during the period). A section of Washington Heights (zip code 10040) was second highest, with a positive test rate of 4.90%.

There have been reports in the past few days about very long lines at neighborhood testing sites, including some on the Lower East Side. In a story posted on Thursday, Gothamist quoted a 27-year-old nurse, Amy Lee, who said she’d been waiting in line for two hours at the CityMD location on Delancey Street. At Gouverneur Health, another LES testing site, Meena Ysanne, a 48-year-old musician, said the wait was a little over an hour,  longer than normal, but manageable (Ysanne gets tested once a week).  On Saturday, the line at Gouverneur was pretty short (the photo posted above was taken Saturday afternoon).

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are continuing to batter small businesses. This week the governor ordered restaurants to close by 10 p.m.  Alan Kaufman of The Pickle Guys, the Lower East Side’s only retail pickle store, talked about some of his worries in a story that appeared in The Guardian:

“Right now, my business is down, it’s got to be down at least 45%,” Kaufman said of his pickle shop, saying he had to lay off several employees since the pandemic hit. Many walk-in customers don’t come by any more. His wholesale business to restaurants and hotels is “almost done.” Diller, the pickle-centric restaurant next door which Kaufman also owns, is faring worse, he said. “We’re trying to keep going. We’re doing whatever we can. “Pickles have been down in this area since 1910, it’s sort of like a living museum.” Kaufman said, “the actual pickle recipes are the same” as that era, when Jews came to the US from Poland to avoid persecution. “You’d lose a bit of history, of nostalgia,” he added.

Gothamist surveyed local businesses, as well. Dede Lahman of Clinton Street Baking Company said the resumption of indoor dining (at 25% of capacity) allowed the restaurant to rehire 16 of 40 staff members. But she said it’s unreasonable for the city to expect restaurants to be constantly reconfiguring their operations during the pandemic while receiving no break whatsoever on exorbitant rents. “If it’s necessary for the city to roll back a bit in the service of the health of New Yorkers, we’re on board,” Lahman explained. “Everyone has to do their part. But at a certain point, we are the ones who have to keep taking the fall.”

Moonlynn Tsai, of the East Broadway spot, Kopitiam, said she didn’t know how the Malaysian restaurant would survive the second wave:

“When the pandemic first hit, we were doing 3 to 5% of our normal sales,” Tsai said, noting that they have never breached 15% of their pre-pandemic sales. “If we hit 10%, we celebrate,” said Tsai. “I’m very nervous that with this new wave happening, and people who had been so supportive of Kopitiam [in the spring], that everyone is on the same boat this time around. If it’s going to happen again, I am very nervous that guests aren’t going to be as supportive as they were.” Tsai added, “Does that mean we have to let go of some people on our team again?”

The city is trying to cope with an $8 billion budget deficit, and the state is in no better shape. New York officials say the only hope is a substantial federal bailout, but at the moment, the Republican Senate has refused to sign on to a state aid package.

Limited Capacity Indoor Dining Resumes in New York City Sept. 30

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Outdoor dining has given some restaurants at least a fighting chance of survival during the summer months. But you can already feel fall in the air, so many restaurant owners have been pushing hard for the resumption of indoor service. This week they got their wish, as Governor Cuomo lifted some additional COVID-19 restrictions, allowing restaurants to open starting September 30 at 25% capacity.

Six months after New York City was shut down to fight coronavirus, the restaurant industry has been devastated. Lower East Side casualties include places such as Fat Radish, Gaia Italian Cafe, An Choi, Beverly’s, Cocoa Bar and Randall’s. Eater reported that almost one-thousand restaurants and bars have closed during the pandemic.

Restaurants that reopen their indoor spaces will be required to conduct temperature checks for all diners, space tables six feet apart and install air filtration systems. Masks will be required when customers get up from their tables. No bar seating will be allowed. If New York City’s infection rates remain low during the month of October, the city and state will look at boosting capacity to 50%.

Restaurant owners were encouraged by the governor’s announcement, but there’s still widespread pessimism about the industry’s future. Even at 100% capacity, most NYC restaurants struggle to pay sky high rents and meet other financial obligations. While some landlords have allowed commercial tenants to defer rent payments, the bill will eventually come due. Without a federal bailout, which is nowhere close to becoming a reality, mass restaurant closures seen inevitable. One local restaurant operator explained the situation to Business Insider:

Amanda Cohen, the owner of Dirt Candy, a restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side, (said) she’s skeptical of the benefits of reopening dining rooms at 25% capacity. For her 75-person restaurant, a 25% capacity limit would mean she’d only be able to serve 12 guests at a time, when accounting for about six staff members. “It literally makes no sense to put my life at risk and my staff members at risk for 12 people to come and dine at Dirt Candy,” Cohen said. “I’m going to have increased costs and I’m not going to be able to make that much more money.”

As Gothamist noted, a recent survey by the New York State Restaurant Association found that two-thirds of NYC restaurants would likely shutter for good if government relief doesn’t come to fruition by the end of the year.