Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Aside from adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, Ithaca's restaurants prepare to brave the winter while avoiding inside seating, and more.

October 20, 2020

Cold Weather Ahead Challenges Ithaca Eateries

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Through the summer and into the fall, Ithaca eateries adapted to accommodate both their guests and New York State social distancing rules. Now, they face a new challenge: cold weather.

In compliance with state regulations for restaurants released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), many Ithaca restaurants have completely altered their operations to maintain social distancing. Adaptations such as increased outdoor dining, fewer indoor seats and retraining staff have all contributed to keeping New York’s eateries open. Now as winter approaches, restaurants will have to adapt once again in order to stay in business with less outdoor options.

Current New York State guidelines allow restaurants to operate at a 50 percent capacity indoors. Other mandates include either placing tables six feet apart or putting up a barrier between tables, allowing a maximum of 10 people per party and requiring face coverings for all employees and unseated customers.

For Alex Gerou, an employee from the Ithaca Commons restaurant Moosewood, these social distancing regulations were not that drastic.

“It wasn’t anything too much to adjust to, I feel. We’re already always concerned with sanitation and keeping the restraint as clean as possible,” Gerou said. “Once we got all of our tables spaced out and everything rearranged it was pretty easy.”

Prior to the release of the new rules, most Ithaca restaurants were closed for in-person dining. Restaurants like Moosewood, Maxie’s Supper Club and Oyster Bar offered takeout, a service that appears to have been crucial to staying open.

Carol Kanfoush, an employee at Maxie’s, said the takeout option kept the restaurant open for the first few weeks of lockdown. Before outdoor dining and reduced indoor dining, how the restaurant would adjust to the pandemic remained uncertain.

“Pretty much since March when the restrictions went into place we’re pretty much going week by week,” Kanfoush said.

Many Ithaca restaurant workers fear that the cold weather and Cornell’s plan to send students home after Thanksgiving will challenge their restaurants’ ability to stay afloat once again.

When asked about plans for the winter, Yxi Ojeda, a worker at Luna’s Inspired Street Food on Aurora Street, hopes that the eatery’s use of space heaters outside could allow the outdoor dining option to continue into the winter. While the space heaters may help Luna’s business as the cold creeps in, it does not provide a solution for when the snow starts, as Ojeda said Luna’s will have no option but to close their uncovered outdoor dining during inclement weather. Ojeda remains hopeful that the restaurant can make up for the possible lack of outdoor dining in the winter by putting up new barriers between tables and expanding its indoor capacity.

Many restaurants also hope for increased takeout and delivery orders once the cold season begins. According to Gentry Morris, founder of The Rook, the restaurant plans to expand its online ordering and potentially start delivering orders. ”

“We’re going to lean on having people take food to go more,” Morris said.

Ithaca is aware of the industry’s struggles, and the city has offered some help. One victory came in early June, when the city closed off Aurora Street to make space for more outdoor dining.

“Ithaca has done a great job,” Ojeda said. “They allowed us to keep the street closed so that we could extend the restaurant to the patio.”

Gerou shared similar sentiments, pointing out the part that the Downtown Ithaca Alliance played a part in helping Moosewood reopen.

“They had a lot of guidance for us and also were good about posting when we were closed and when we reopened and helping to promote that we were reopening,” Gerou said.

Gerou added that he appreciated the efforts of the Tompkins County Health Department, which provided the restaurant with free masks for its employees.

However, other restaurant workers did not share the same opinion. Kanfousch said she didn’t necessarily notice Ithaca actively doing anything to help Maxie’s through the pandemic. She said she didn’t think that the city could offer useful guidance.

“I think there’s so many questions surrounding everything from the top down,” Kanfousch said. “I feel like we’re still kind of fending for ourselves with no guidance.”

Additionally, the pandemic has forced many restaurants in Ithaca to furlough or lay off employees. Restaurants like Maxie’s furloughed many of its employees at the beginning of the pandemic. Kanfousch said the staff at Maxie’s dropped from around 30 or 40 employees to only five employees during the height of the pandemic.

Similarly, Morris said The Rook lost employees earlier in the year. But other restaurants like Luna’s have seen a different trend.

Ojeda said that Luna’s hired more locals in order to provide employment to those who needed it during the pandemic. Ojeda said that the initiative decreased the hours for many employees, but said she was grateful that her coworkers had the opportunity to work during an economic recession .

Ithaca restaurants have worked diligently to comply with state guidelines while providing great service to their customers. “I’m hopeful and we are ready to make adjustments. Whatever we have to do to stay open,” Kanfoush said.