On Wednesday afternoon, one of Brooklyn’s top Vietnamese restaurants took to Instagram to share an update: “Di An Di will be closed for service tonight (12/15) due Covid exposure within our team [sic],” it announced in a post. It’s the first time the restaurant has had to temporarily close since April of last year, says co-owner Tuan Bui, when a suspected case of coronavirus prompted a precautionary closure. A few hours later, at least a half-dozen more restaurants would follow it.
Restaurants and bars across the city are temporarily closing in droves this week, citing suspected and confirmed COVID-19 exposures among their staffs, including Contento in East Harlem, Love, Nelly in Bushwick, and others. As of Wednesday evening, the list continues to grow.
At Contento, sommelier Yannick Benjamin found out the morning of Tuesday, December 14 that a customer who dined at the restaurant over the weekend had tested positive. An employee also tested positive, he says, and that, combined with news of the omicron variant spreading, led him to suspend service on the spot. There was a private event for 25 people scheduled at noon that day, and he called the party to cancel at 11:40 a.m.
“We needed to do a thorough investigation right away,” says Benjamin, a co-founder of the wine-centric restaurant that’s also been praised for its accessibility. “We have a lot of people that come to our restaurant that have disabilities and compromised immune systems.”
Stephanie Gallardo, co-owner Love, Nelly, closed her Bushwick bakery early on Wednesday after a member of her staff tested positive. “Everyone this last week is closing because of exposure,” she says. These aren’t businesses flaunting non-compliance with city and state regulations, either. “A lot of these people are places that are very open about being masked all the time, their team is vaccinated, we’re doing everything we need to do with the new mandate… We really can’t catch a break.”
Several restaurant owners stated in interviews and online that they would not reopen until their staff had received negative COVID-19 tests, including Di An Di. According to Bui, members of his staff will need to receive two negative rapid tests — one on Wednesday, the day of the announcement, and one the day after — in order to return to work. Getting access to testing on short notice could be a bigger problem.
The temporary closures this week have coincided with extended waits at many of the city’s walk-in clinics ahead of the holidays. According to Gallardo, an employee of Love, Nelly waited two hours for a rapid test on Wednesday evening, only to be told that the clinic had run out. By the time Gallardo had checked in at a separate testing site on Wednesday, she was informed there were only enough tests for five more patients.
Those delays mean that some restaurants may need to extend their temporary closures. In its original post on Instagram, Di An Di shared that the restaurant would be closed for dinner service for one night only. If his staff can’t make it through those hours-long lines, though, “we may have to close tomorrow, as well,” he says. “To come back to these long waits and dealing with uncertainty, it is stressful, but we know the drill this time.”
Bui, who had already been waiting for 45 minutes at a CityMD location in Williamsburg when he called, brought a folding chair with him anticipating an extended wait on line.
The surge of temporary closures comes at a time when many restaurants and bars are preparing for the holiday season, typically an uptick for businesses before a slower January and February. “It feels like deja vu all over again,” says Benjamin, whose restaurant posted that it would close within hours of New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells naming it one of “New York’s Top 10 New Restaurants of 2021.” The decision was not an easy decision because it’s the busiest time of the year.
City and state officials are also battling the rise of the omicron variant of COVID-19, which was designated as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization in November. As of December 9, 20 omicron cases have been detected in the state so far, 13 of which were in NYC, according to CNBC. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned this week that the omicron variant may push a “significant surge in infections” across the country as early as next month, according to the New York Times, and New York and New Jersey are recording higher-than-average amounts of omicron cases as compared to the rest of the U.S.
In recent weeks, NYC has tightened its mask guidance and vaccine mandate requirements. On November 29, city officials cautioned New Yorkers to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Mayor Bill de Blasio then announced that, beginning on December 14, children ages 5 to 11 would be required to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors, while customers ages 12 and over would need to have two doses as of December 27. Private sector employees in NYC must also start showing proof of vaccination beginning on December 27, following an earlier requirement that was rolled out for city staffers in October.
As of December 13, the COVID-19 test positivity rate on a seven-day average in NYC was 4.53 percent, according to city data, marking a slight uptick from the previous two weeks. The city’s safety threshold for NYC’s test positivity rate on a seven-day average is 5 percent. While omicron variant concerns run high, of the city’s tested cases in the past four weeks, 98 percent were found to be the highly transmissible delta variant. In NYC, 70.9 percent of residents ages 5 and up have been fully vaccinated, according to city data.
A list of restaurants that have issued temporary closures at the time of publishing: