Cold U.S. weather crushes outdoor businesses in COVID-hit cities

by Matthew Lavietes | @mattlavietes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 22 December 2020 10:39 GMT

Restaurant patrons sit inside plastic tents while being served outside of the Lupo Verde restaurant along the 14th Street Corridor amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Washington, U.S., December 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

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With limits on indoor gathering and already thin margins, winter is pushing thousands of businesses to the brink of closure

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK, Dec 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Patios, marquees, plastic bubbles - makeshift outdoor spaces have become new staples for businesses across the United States, after city and state governments put limits on how many people could gather indoors to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The novel open-air areas created safe havens for city dwellers when the first round of coronavirus restrictions began to lift over the summer and gave many businesses a lifeline after months of shutdowns.

But, as temperatures plunge and people retreat back inside, some businesses that have come to rely heavily on their new outdoor spaces are finding themselves fighting for survival again - this time, in a battle with the weather.

"The weather is everything right now," said Sara Ruiz, the general manager of Rosie's, a Mexican restaurant in New York City's East Village.

"If it's really cold, you just see it right away on your reservations, you see it on the streets," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "People aren't out there as much anymore."

The pandemic has killed about 320,000 people in the country - the world's highest death toll - and is straining the capacity of healthcare systems in some states.

On Monday Congress approved an $892 billion coronavirus aid package, throwing a lifeline to the nation's pandemic-battered economy after months of inaction, while also keeping the federal government funded.

When Rosie's reopened in June, at a time when all indoor dining was still banned in the city, the restaurant expanded its outdoor patio to seat 80 people, a capacity equivalent to their pre-pandemic levels, Ruiz said.

Customers were welcomed back. Sales were bolstered. Laid off staffers were rehired.

Then, as the weather turned colder, business stalled again, she said.

Indoor dining was briefly reinstated in New York City at 25% capacity at the end of September, before being banned again last week.

To mitigate the cold and try to draw in customers, Rosie's purchased heat lamps, which cost the restaurant $400 a day to fuel with propane, offered diners complimentary hot drinks and sold Mexican-themed blankets.

But the new additions have not been enough to attract the restaurant's regular flow of business on colder days, Ruiz said.

"If the diner isn't comfortable ... and I mean in the sense of being too cold or if it's too windy to even hold your glass of wine on the table, it's just not going to happen," said Ruiz.

Pedestrians walk past temporary tents and structures erected outside of restaurants meant for outdoor dining in Washington, U.S. November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

COST OF THE COLD

Jimmy Trahanas, who owns the Golden Reef Diner, a restaurant in a New York City suburb on Long Island, also bought heat lamps and a massive insulated tent for customers to stay warm, costing him $15,000 a month to maintain, he said.

But Trahanas worries that his efforts will not be enough to keep customers comfortable through the cold season.

"I don't know if we're going to make it through the winter," said Trahanas, 67, who has been working in New York's restaurant industry since immigrating from Greece to the United States when he was 16 years old.

Less than half of operators say their restaurant currently offers outdoor dining, down from 67% in September, noted a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association, which represents more than 500,000 restaurant businesses.

Michael Sabitoni of the College of Hospitality Management at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, said that between new restrictions, dropping temperatures and already thin margins, restaurateurs are asking themselves: "Is it really worth it?"

"We're going to see these restaurants that would normally do these structures just giving up to a certain extent till the cold weather subsides," the associate professor said.

"Some are getting really creative, but how many igloos can you put in your parking area?"

Green City Market, a local marketplace in Chicago, extended its outdoor season in order to keep doing business, but ceased operations late last month due to dropping temperatures.

"We live in an urban area where folks sometimes walk to the market. That could be challenging to do as the weather gets colder," said Mandy Moody, the market's interim executive director, in a phone interview.

"Same for our farmers. They were traveling on icy roads and we want to make sure they're not doing that."

The marketplace would have normally moved inside for the winter, but this year shifted all sales online, Moody said.

"There were just too many things out of control if we had chosen to go with the indoor market. And so that safety and consistency is what drove that decision."

Green City is currently serving about 500 customers a week, a fraction of the outdoor market's regular number, she added.

A worker clears and cleans a table along the sidewalk outside "Eat at Joes'' restaurant that continues to remain open following new coronavirus restrictions limiting restaurants to take-out only in Los Angeles County, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Redondo Beach, California, U.S., November 30, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake

'IF WE SURVIVE THE WINTER'

Even if they would have liked to, not all businesses have had the option to keep serving their customers outside.

In California, the country's most populous state, Governor Gavin Newsom on Dec. 7 implemented new restrictions barring outdoor dining in regions where hospital intensive care unit beds are filled nearly to capacity.

The same survey by the National Restaurant Association found that 37% of respondents said it is unlikely their restaurant will still be in business six months from now without new relief packages from the federal government.

And the coronavirus aid package might come too late for businesses that face widespread shutdowns and risk running out cash, some owners said.

"If we survive the winter, then we have a chance," said Trahanas at the Golden Reef Diner. "If we don't survive the winter, you're going to see a lot of places going down."

Related stories:

Space bubbles ease New York restaurant troubles

'It worked': In New York City, pandemic-inspired outdoor dining to become permanent

U.S. mayors 'bleak' about recovery from pandemic's effects

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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