It’s the restaurants, stupid.
Midtown without places to eat is a hollow shell of itself. They’re the socializing glue without which no central business district can function.
“The first thing anyone asks anyone who goes back to an office is, ‘Where do you go for lunch?’ ” observed Mary Ann Tighe, the tristate CEO of CBRE, the biggest commercial real-estate leasing and management firm in the US, who knows the Manhattan office scene as well as anyone alive. Right now, the answer is nowhere.
The clock’s ticking. Unlike in residential areas, which are teeming with alfresco dining options, Midtown has few restaurants with outdoor service. Once the air chills and the days grow short, they’ll be gone in a flash, and with them, any hope for saving Manhattan’s heart and soul.
Yet Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio seem hell-bent on destroying what remains of the restaurant business, never mind the damage to the city as a whole. It’s the only part of the state yet to allow indoor dining, even though all of the Big Apple’s vital COVID stats — new infections, hospitalizations and deaths — are as low or even lower than anywhere else.
Often overlooked is that, with the exception of a few big companies that shut their facilities down until Jan. 1, employees have been allowed back to work in their offices if they want since the June 22 start of Phase Two reopening. But they’re not coming. Occupancy in Midtown is barely 10 percent, even though tenants are obliged to pay 100 percent of the rent.
Occupancy will tick upward only to 20 percent after Labor Day and perhaps 40 percent after Jan. 1, real- estate insiders say. But with no restaurants, they won’t come back even in meagre numbers.
I know of no poll that asks employees how important restaurants are in deciding whether to return to their offices. But they matter at least as much as subways. I’ve worked in central Midtown for 25 years and I’ve written about restaurants for 20 years. I also know the office market, the prime mover of the city’s and state’s economy. And, as much as I miss the camaraderie of my office at 1211 Sixth Avenue, I won’t go back as long as Midtown remains a restaurant graveyard.
My friends working from home in Brooklyn and in the suburbs say the same thing. They need a Midtown (and a Midtown South and FiDi) with some of the spirit they remember. Stores aren’t enough. They need places to eat — and to socialize, to do business off-campus and to people-watch even with masks on.
Bankers, brokers, art directors, media moguls and digital wizards have little reason to give up their Zoom sessions for a Midtown that’s bereft of actual human interaction — which occurs mainly in restaurants, from holes in the wall to Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine.
“Restaurants” doesn’t just mean destination places like La Grenouille, 21, The Grill and Le Bernardin, or moderately priced Serafina, Docks Oyster Bar and scores of casual Japanese sushi joints. It means any place with tables, chairs and food. It means diners like Red Flame on West 44th Street and Parkside Diner at West 55th Street. It means Chick fil-A, Bare Burger and every cheap spot serving tacos, pasta, chicken tikka and Cuban sandwiches. Even dressed-down millennials need their Chipotle fix.
Sure, there’s a real danger of spreading the coronavirus at bars where densely packed drinkers breathe into each other’s faces. But bars and restaurants aren’t the same thing.
Besides rules for lower density, mask-wearing and other viral-blocking steps, there’s an obvious way to more effectively minimize risk: No more bars inside restaurants. Some owners won’t like losing the easy money that flows from $20 cocktails, but nobody said the “new normal” would be easy.
Most owners came to terms with the new requirements months ago and launched good-faith efforts to live up to them — only to have Cuomo postpone indoor service that was supposed to be part of the Phase Three reopening on July 7.
Yes, reopened restaurants can and should be heavily regulated. For sure, some won’t be able to cope with the rules and will ultimately close.
But losing some restaurants is better than losing all of them — and much better than losing all of Midtown, the place that symbolizes New York City, as well.
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