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New York Restaurants Hope To Avoid Heartbreak On Valentine's Weekend


Restaurant reservations for Valentine's Day in New York City are down by more than 50% compared to last year. Sally Herships checks in with two restaurant owners there to see how they're planning to navigate what's usually a big night.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Scottadito Osteria Toscana Restaurant is a typical Brooklyn place - high ceilings, dark wood. There's a table with a white cloth piled with plates, glasses and two silver pitchers of water. But there are also clear, plastic pump dispensers of hand sanitizer. Welcome to eating out during the pandemic.

DONALD MINERVA: So we - when people come in, we take their temperature with this.

HERSHIPS: Donald Minerva is holding a thermometer. He's the owner. The state encourages restaurants to record customers' information in case it's needed for contact tracing.

MINERVA: Take their temperature, take their address, take their phone number.

HERSHIPS: For the past two months, indoor dining in New York City has been banned. It's been takeout, delivery and outdoor tables only. But beginning this weekend, Governor Cuomo has cleared indoor dining at 25% capacity. As a result, restaurant reservations for Valentine's Day have quadrupled. That's according to the site OpenTable. But they're still just half of what they were last year.

The CDC categorizes indoor dining at restaurants as high risk. And only a tiny percentage of New York City's food service workers have received the vaccine. So advocates say serving indoors puts them at risk. All of this means the restaurant business is wildly unpredictable. That's why nearby in the kitchen, chef Raffaele Spadavecchia is looking for a big pan.

RAFFAELE SPADAVECCHIA: Let's go. Can I have a - una, una...

HERSHIPS: Nowadays, the kitchen often ends up with extra food. On this day, it's roasted potatoes. Spadavecchia leans over the warm aluminum pan filled with potatoes and sausage. He sprinkles some fresh basil, seals it up, and he and Minerva walk outside and ring the buzzer on the building next door. It's a firehouse.


MINERVA: How are you, guys?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

MINERVA: How you doing?

SPADAVECCHIA: Hey guys. We bring some snack for you guys.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You guys are the best. How are you?


HERSHIPS: But restaurants are supposed to sell food, not give it away. Minerva has taken out $275,000 in PPP and disaster relief loans to stay afloat. And even so, he's had to lay off almost half his staff. The New York State Restaurant Association says 1 out of every 6 restaurants has shut down since the pandemic began.

Across the city in Queens, Dan Connor is also thinking about Valentine's Day. He co-owns another restaurant and had what you might call a holiday dress rehearsal when the pandemic first began.

DAN CONNOR: The first night we were closed was March 16 of 2020. That's when they told us to shut the doors with no warning.

HERSHIPS: The next day was St. Patrick's Day. And the restaurant Connor owns is named Donovan's. It's an Irish pub.

CONNOR: And we had 3,000 pounds of corned beef sitting there ready to go. And that's lost, right?

HERSHIPS: A lot of corned beef ended up in the trash. But he was able to keep going. A nonprofit began ordering lunch and dinner for doctors and other front-line workers from the pub. Still, Connor says, best case for this Valentine's Day, he just wants to cover his bills, to keep his staff working. He says smart restaurateurs will order carefully for the big day. They can't afford to get stuck with thousands of pounds of corned beef. But he's hopeful the pub will survive. Connor and his staff filmed a video to apply for an emergency small business grant.


CONNOR: Dear friends, first and foremost, we hope that you and your loved ones are healthy and safe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are reaching out to let you know that...

HERSHIPS: He posted the video on YouTube. A customer saw it and created a GoFundMe page for the pub. It's been viewed thousands of times and raised thousands of dollars, each tiny electronic ping an unlikely Valentine expressing love pandemic-style.

Sally Herships, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Here are Donovan's, we've been keeping busy with takeout, delivery and most importantly, delivering hundreds of meals a week... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.