When the Covid-19 vaccines rolled out in the spring, many New Yorkers expected a summer of unbridled fun and maskless debauchery. The overwhelming energy was: we’re off the hook, and it’s time to party.
Restaurant staff and owners braced themselves for a flood of footfall, miles of drink bills and rude behavior. And for a brief, radiant moment, they got it. In June and July, the New Yorkers who think of restaurants as nightlife had the hot vax summer they were promised. The pent-up desire to go out, eat and drink with abandon, and stay out until all the hours were satisfied. In that fleeting moment of apparent security—before the Delta variant became such a threat and masks returned—dining out was a joyful and unburdened experience.
“We were over-staffed in the beginning because we thought we couldn’t keep up with demand,” said Max Stampa-Brown, the drinks director of the West Village bar Bandits. “We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to keep up. We looked at each other like, ‘Wow, this is going to be crazy. This is going to be much bigger than we thought.’”
When Bandits fully reopened for indoor dining in May — requiring guests to show vaccination cards a few weeks before the citywide mandate — Mr. Stampa-Brown the excitement of the guests mixed with some trepidation. “It was pretty nice to see people being this new version of themselves and making mistakes like you’re at a prom every night.”
After that initial clumsiness, the party had begun.
“With a lack of inhibition and a lack of social decorum comes a sense of wanting to be like” additional if humanly possible to make up for lost time,” said Mr Stampa-Brown. He had expected more of a sit-and-eat crowd in the summer, but saw Bandits become a late night dance spot right before his eyes – the bar filled up as the disco ball went on at 10pm every night
Kevol Graham, who co-owns the Caribbean restaurant Kokomo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his wife Ria Graham, said opening inside and allowing seating in the bar created a cozy atmosphere among strangers, an element of dining in New York that was completely wiped out by the pandemic.
“Now that people are allowed to go to the bar, there is more fun,” said Mr. Graham. “People are more comfortable asking other tables or asking someone at the bar, ‘Hey, what are you drinking?'”
Caroline Schiff, the executive pastry chef at the Gage & Tollner steakhouse in Downtown Brooklyn, also saw months of fear give way to excitement. “In those glorious early weeks, people would put a note in their reservations or talk to their server like, ‘It’s our first meal now that we’re fully vaccinated,’ and people came out to celebrate,” she said.
Eric Sze, owner of Taiwanese restaurant 886 on St. Marks Place in Manhattan, was stunned by the energy released when it fully reopened. “People were throwing parties for no reason,” he said. “’Party for 20? What is the occasion?’ “Oh, I just miss my friends.” It was every night, every week, for a month and a half.”
And those parties did not hold back. “The first day we opened an indoor restaurant in the spring, the very first night, there was a six-top inside and started putting Coke on the table halfway through dinner,” said Mr. sze. “We weren’t even mad. We were like, ‘Welcome back!’”
Guests’ checks were also higher than ever. “People were spending money like never before,” said Mr. Sze. The vibe, he said, was, “‘I order too much food, I want everything on the menu and a sake bomb to start with.'”
Mrs. Schiff agreed. “Almost every table is like this: Raw bar, bread, starter, main course and dessert. It really is an indulgent, exciting, festive way of eating.”
The shift was most evident for Ms. Schiff at the Gage & Tollner Confectionary. The $24 Alaskan baked for two, once described by NewsMadura restaurant critic Pete Wells as a “brown blob the size of a well-fed house cat,” was an even bigger hit than their team had hoped. “I’ve never sold a dessert like this,” Mrs. Schiff said. “It shocked us all. Whatever we predicted for dessert sales, it nearly doubled. It was insane.”
Large format desserts even became a theme on the menus this summer. There was a sundae for two at the Williamsburg Brasserie Francie, which opened shortly before the pandemic and then closed until February 2021. At the new Momofuku Ssam Bar in the South Street Seaport, guests were encouraged to share oversized bowls of bingsu. Carne Mare, also at the South Street Seaport, added a baked spumoni for two to its menu this summer. There was another baked Alaska for two at Nat’s on Bank in the West Village. And at the Tokyo Record Bar in Greenwich Village, a towering sake-soaked kakigori was served for the whole table to share.
Understanding Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the US
- Vaccine Rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are permitted by law and have been confirmed in court proceedings.
- Mask Rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in July that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places in areas with outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. Find out where CDC guidelines apply and where states have their own masking policies. The battle over masks has become controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are demanding that students be vaccinated against Covid-19. Nearly all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
- schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educators. A survey published in August found that many U.S. parents of school-aged children are opposed to mandatory vaccines for students, but were more in favor of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff who have not received their injections.
- Hospitals and Medical Centers. Many hospitals and major health systems require workers to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, citing the increasing caseload fueled by the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination coverage in their communities, even within their workforce.
- New York City. Evidence of vaccination is required from employees and customers for indoor meals, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement will not begin until September 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system must have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital employees should also receive a vaccine or be tested weekly. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced it would aim to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “by mid-September.” President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Ms. Schiff also noticed that requests for gluten-free and dairy-free dishes fell off. “I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants where you get a lot of allergy or dietary restrictions,” she said. “For pastries, this is usually gluten-free or dairy-free. I’d say that’s down 85 percent.”
She hadn’t counted on such a meal. “I don’t sell Parker House sandwiches here almost every night,” said Mrs. Schiff. “I’ve scaled up this batch about four times now, because we’re sold out every night. Not so long ago, there were many people in New York who didn’t want to eat bread.”
She credited it to the frenzied, life-affirming energy that sparked from New Yorkers this summer. “Obviously there is a percentage of the population that is allergic and gluten intolerant, and they will always eat that way, but I think people say, ‘I want bread.'”
Now that summer is coming to an end and the Delta variant is still on the rise, the party is coming to an end. “Right as summer kicked in, our ticket average skyrocketed from $25 to $40 per person,” said Mr. Sze. “Now it’s back to where it was,” he said. “I really feel like people have fallen back into their old habits.”
Optimism still reigns and diners still frequent restaurants and dine indoors, but it has become clear that the recovery from Covid will be a longer road than expected. Mr. Stampa-Brown has noticed that pre-vaccine unease is seeping back into Bandits. “We’ve got people coming in, and they’re fully vaccinated, and they’re still standing at the bar with a mask on,” he said.
“There is definitely fear, there is a possibility that something bad could happen again and we could go into lockdown again,” he said. “And people think, ‘I’m going to make it while I can have it. There’s a chance we can go back in time, and this time we’ve had it all has been for nothing.’”