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State GOP seeks an end to restaurant restrictions

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When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all restaurants and businesses would shut down statewide last year, Covid-19 cases were on the rise, but by summer, the case count was decreasing, and restaurants and businesses could open, with restrictions. Now, as more New Yorkers are inoculated against the respiratory virus, Republicans in the State Legislature say they believe it’s time to rescind two key mandates.

They introduced a joint resolution on March 16 calling for the repeal of two of Cuomo’s executive orders — one that requires restaurants and bars to shut down early — currently 11 p.m., though earlier it was 10 p.m. — and another that requires customers to buy food with alcohol — both of which Assemblyman Ed Ra, of Franklin Square, called arbitrary.

“Patrons should continue to follow mask and social-distancing protocols,” Ra, who introduced the resolution in the State Assembly along with GOP Leader Will Barclay, of upstate Pulaski, said in a statement. “But it’s long past time to override the most onerous re-strictions.”

Many local restaurateurs have complained to Ra about the restrictions, he told the Herald, with Nick Altilio, manager of Trotter’s Bar and Grill in Franklin Square, saying they are “the dumbest thing ever,” and Ra explaining, “I don’t think that anyone’s less safe if they’re having a beer rather than a beer and buffalo wings.”

In fact, the assemblyman said, a presentation that the governor gave in December showed that Covid-19 transmission has been traced back to bars and restaurants in just 1.43 percent of cases, and, State Republicans argue, the governor has provided no evidence that an 11 p.m. curfew reduces Covid-19 transmission rates.

As a result, they claim, a State Supreme Court judge ruled in January that nearly 100 restaurants in Erie County were being unfairly restricted, and, according to the New York State Restaurant Association, nearly one in six restaurants statewide were forced to close during this pandemic.

“Food and beverage establishments have complied with every rule and regulation over the past year at great cost to them personally,” Scott Wexler, executive director of Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, said in a statement. “They’ve demonstrated they can and will do what is required to protect the public health — they did this when the curfew was 10 p.m., they’re doing it with an 11 p.m. curfew, and they’ll do it without a curfew.”

Still, Cuomo announced one day after the Republicans introduced the resolution that “the 11 p.m. curfew for food and beverage establishments and the 12 a.m. curfew for catered events will remain in effect for the time being.” He added that he and other state officials are reviewing the protocols, and will make an announcement about them in April.

The state government has eased its dining restrictions, with the governor announcing earlier this month that restaurants can increase their dining capacity to 75 percent.

“We think the dining capacity is a great start for all small restaurants,” said Vito Cortesiano, owner of Salvatore’s of Elmont, noting some local restaurants have been faring better than others during this pandemic.

At Trotters, for example, Altilio said business has been “going great” since he implemented various safety precautions, such as touch-less doors and a hand-sanitizing station. He said he is excited to offer more tables under the 75 percent regulation because “we’re a big restaurant” and “we’ve been getting a lot of support.”

Down the street at Alpine Restaurant, however, owner Theodore Delis said, business at the 24-year-old restaurant has been slow over the past eight months. He has offered outdoor dining and long, socially distant tables, and requires his staff to wear masks and gloves and sanitize every surface after use.

People are now starting to come out more, Delis said, as the weather gets nicer and more people are getting vaccinated. He said he is pleased that the dining capacity has once again increased, but noted, “I’d be more happy if it were 100 percent.”

Michele Galo, owner of Little Enrico’s in Franklin Square, meanwhile, said she did not think the dining capacity would help her pizza place, where she has removed some indoor tables to limit how many people can eat inside, because, she said, she fears people are still afraid to dine in.

Instead, she said, she hopes the Town of Hempstead continues to offer free outdoor dining permits. “We shouldn’t have to pay until this pandemic is over,” she said, with Cortesiano adding that anything to help restaurants — including getting rid of the curfew and the requirement that alcohol must be served with food — “is what we all need, as we are all in this together.”

“Our goal,” he said, “is to continue to make all of our customers feel safe, feel like family and just enjoy a night out as we all want to feel ‘normal’ again.”