When Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City restaurants could reopen for limited indoor dining in time for Valentine’s Day, he took the liberty of suggesting that couples might want to propose – noting that wedding venues would be reopening a month later.
“Get engaged on Valentine’s Day, on the restaurants’ reopening, and 15 March you can have the wedding – 150 people,” said the New York state governor.
Public health experts, meanwhile, instead took the liberty of warning against a rush to gather indoors.
And New Yorkers themselves were relatively tentative about stepping inside to chow down together, even on one of the most popular days of the year for such an activity and after months of restrictions.
Last spring, New York City was at the global center of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 28,341 in the city as of Monday, according to official figures.
The state then experienced a huge winter peak that was worse than the spring surge. Infection rates are now back on the decline, according to data compiled by the New York Times.
City restaurant owners – who from Thursday were permitted to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity – said they saw a rush of business on Valentine’s weekend, but there was some trepidation and less of the normal exuberance that traditionally sees dramatic proposals and grand romantic gestures.
At the Brooklyn pizza restaurant Fornino, the founder and owner Michael Ayoub said the demand to celebrate on Sunday was there – he said their Valentine’s package featuring heart-shaped pizzas was “extremely popular” – but that most people were still choosing to eat at home.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business for 45 years, normally Valentine’s Day we call it like Noah’s ark, they come two by two,” he said. “But this particular year, I have to say it was very slow indoors. I think people still are a little bit concerned about indoor dining.”
He added: “There were no big bouquets of roses or anybody showing up with any ring or, years past I’ve had people give me the ring and say could you please put this in the dessert or something like that. But there was none of that this year. A little bit more solemn, a bit more … well, let’s face it, life has changed.”
That is not to say, however, that there were no proposals at all. The Standard, High Line hotel reported three proposals over the weekend, while the Italian restaurant Lucciola in Manhattan witnessed one proposal – but also one breakup – on Sunday.
Experts are wary about a resumption of indoor dining in the US.
“Now is the wrong time to dine indoors. The science suggests that even though the cases are declining total, hidden in those declining case rates are a portion of the new more transmissible variants,” Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told The Hill.
New York’s latest move appeared to challenge Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which still say it is safest to take out food from restaurants and advises those who do eat at restaurants to “eat outdoors, if possible”.
And Melissa Perry, the chair of the department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, said: “Indoor dining with masks off is really of concern, it’s still a risk at this time.”
Michele Casadei Massari, the chef and owner of New York’s Lucciola, said almost a year after the pandemic hit, they saw a celebration of love more generally this Valentine’s, rather than exclusively between couples, and the crowd was older and more local than usual.
Most people wanted to sit outside in the restaurant’s heated “bubbles” and nobody went down on one knee or came in with flowers, and fewer people than typically ordered champagne, he said.
“Everything was in the theme of celebrating love, but [more] sober … nothing too extravagant,” he added.
The New York City Hospitality Alliance had been lobbying for indoor dining to resume and had frequently accused Cuomo of discriminating against the city in terms of capacity limits.
Meanwhile, Giselle Deiaco, the co-owner of Avena, which has two restaurants in Manhattan, said she was “overwhelmed” by how many people came out to eat at the weekend.
“I’m just glad to see this sort of reaction from people about going out and eating. I feel a lot of New Yorkers miss going out because it’s such a part of our culture living in the city going out dining … to see it come back very strongly this way is a great positive sign for the restaurant industry,” she said.
And at Kokomo in Brooklyn, which launched during the pandemic in June, the owners said they were excited to be able to use the Caribbean restaurant’s interior.
Ria Graham, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Kevol, said it had been a disheartening 2020 after investing so much in the interior “that was supposed to be the star of the show”.
Thousands of restaurant workers have lost their jobs.
Ilya Panchernikov, the managing director of Manhattan Michelin-starred restaurant Caviar Russe, said: “It’s probably been the most challenging time – even more challenging than post 9/11/2001 … as well as the [great] recession.”
He added that 25% capacity was “simply not enough” for many restaurants to survive but that returning customers were “ecstatic” and that he was confident, overall, that New York City will recover from Covid.