With the threat of holiday-related COVID-19 spread passed, restaurants across New York are reopening for indoor dining — except for restaurants in the state's biggest city. New York City restaurateurs are fighting back for their very survival. Seaport House owner and executive chef Kian Khatibi is pushing on with a lawsuit, filed in December, demanding immediate reopening of indoor dining.
Khatibi opened Seaport House, a seafood joint in the historic South Street Seaport district, on October 31 in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. Building out and opening a restaurant amid the pandemic was no cakewalk, but neither is operating.
"Right now, you know, we're running on an empty tank. Every day pays our bills. And that's about it," he said.
The new restaurant got to enjoy less than two months of indoor dining, albeit at significantly reduced capacity, before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cracked down again. As of mid-December, indoor dining closed down again, indefinitely, as COVID-19 cases spiked across the state and nation.
But the data behind the governor's decision didn't sit well with Khatibi, who is also a licensed attorney. According to data collected by the state, bars and restaurants are responsible for roughly 1.4 percent of new coronavirus infections. By contrast, the top contributor to spread, private gatherings, accounts for a whopping 74 percent of infections.
He decided to sue, arguing that indoor dining saves lives by giving people something to do other than gather in private homes.
"People are congregating," said Migir Ilganayev, Khatibi's co-council on the case. "By shutting down indoor dining, places that are safe, that are ventilated, that provide UVC lights in the ceilings, open windows — when you take that away from the people, especially during the holiday season, they'll find a place to go."
Although many cases questioning the constitutionality of lockdown orders have been slapped down by judges, Ilganayev said he thinks they have a chance because "numbers don't lie."
The case is heading to court for a preliminary injunction hearing on Jan. 21.
The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to the restaurant industry, which even in the best of times is a business with very slim margins. More than 1,000 restaurants have shut down permanently in New York City, alone, according to Eater.
A relative newcomer to New York City's restaurant scene, Seaport House is getting by, thanks largely to an expensive outdoor seating installation. But even the optimistic Khatibi knows times ahead will be tough if indoor dining remains shut down amid winter.
"You know, we just have to make it to March," he said.