HR and legal nervous-nellies spoiling holiday fun for workers, restaurant owners

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Who’s afraid of the big, bad variant? Not New Yorkers who regularly patronize our Michelin-starred dining palaces and modestly priced cafes, trattorias and noodle parlors.

Omicron paranoia has crippled the city’s vital restaurant-party business even before the bug arrives here in large numbers. But, remarkably, and tellingly, it has yet to make much of a dent, if any, on regular eatery traffic in the main dining rooms. 

Owners were counting on holiday season corporate-party business to help them recoup losses incurred during earlier lockdowns. But big banks and other companies are scratching planned and booked gatherings in droves — among them, Jefferies Financial Group, which canceled all its planned parties in the city. The needless hammer-stroke cost my friend, who owns a Midtown Italian restaurant, 240 expected guests during the next two weeks.

Other places report less catastrophic but still damaging corporate crap-outs. They blame them on overblown fears of the O-word, which the media depict as the next Andromeda Strain that’s poised to wipe us out.

Le Coucou's elegant dining room features huge chandeliers and white tablecloths.
The elegant dining room at NYC’s best new restaurant, Le Coucou, which reopened in November.
Tamara Beckwith

At the same time, however, regular customers are not canceling reservations in large numbers. While truly reliable restaurant data are scarce at any time, it’s obvious to anyone who goes out to eat that most places are full — night and day, early and late.

What might explain the seeming contradiction? Ordinary humans who want to eat out with friends, families and colleagues don’t have nervous-nelly H&R departments and lawyers breathing down their necks the way companies do. They understand that restaurant dining rooms are actually among the safest indoor spaces, thanks to no-exception vaccination rules for customers and employees.

Dante Soho
Omicron paranoia has yet to make a dent on eatery traffic in NYC dining rooms.
Daniel William McKnight

Employers on the other hand remain terrified of lawsuits in the event that anyone claims to have been sickened at a company party — just as they repeatedly postpone planned returns-to-offices for the same reason.

Now, anecdotal evidence can mislead. But as a restaurant writer, I go to more than enough places to have a real-world handle on what’s happening. The visible evidence belies the often guarded and/or downbeat statements by owners known to describe land-rush business and record revenue, even in normal times, as a “living.”

There’s no question that restaurateurs are beset by unprecedented strains, from skyrocketing food costs to labor shortages to unforgiving landlords.

Even so, since South African doctors first reported the variant to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24, restaurants’ non-party business seems largely immune (a bad pun, I know) to Omnicon panic. I’ve observed full-house seating, and groups of customers waiting for tables, at city eateries large and small, new and old, in every neighborhood.

I list names, not to boast of my eating exploits, but to illustrate the phenomenon’s scale and scope. Crowds were huge at steakhouses Hawksmoor and Porterhouse; at Japanese soba noodle spot Sarashina Horii, Japanese-Peruvian Nobu 57, Indian Tamarind and Szechuanese Hutong; at Brooklyn’s waterfront River Cafe; Italian Fresco by Scotto, Cellini, Sant Ambroeus and brand-new Osteria dell Baio; at even newer Mediterranean-style Zou Zou’s; at French La Goulue, Orsay, Le Coucou and Restaurant Daniel; and at modern-American Polo Bar and Union Square Cafe.

Need I mention that the crowds sat mainly indoors, heedless of scare stories by food writers who seem to prefer last year’s shutdowns?

Katz's indoor dining
Despite panic over Omicron, New Yorkers are still enjoying indoor dining at city eateries large and small, new and old, in every neighborhood, like city staple Katz’s, above.

Most customers not in thrall to corporate bureaucrats are smart enough to read official New York City data showing that among vaccinated Big Apple residents, instances of serious COVID-19 cases are negligible and deaths near-nonexistent.

Look at the Department of Health Web site and click the “recent trends” button. The charts show near-negligible hospitalizations among the vaccinated for months despite noticeable upticks in “cases.”

Outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio and just-arrived Gov. Kathy Hochul can use the lesson of empty private-event rooms and jam-packed public dining rooms to educate the media-cowed public. The pols should scrap their near-useless daily “updates” and simply display the DOH charts that show how safe vaccinated New Yorkers really are — and get out of their limousines and check out what’s really happening in restaurants.

It might reassure those who still fear to leave their apartments. But the rest of us — New Yorkers who got their shots and like to enjoy a meal out — already know the truth.

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