Restaurants in New York City are allowed to increase their indoor dining capacity to 50%. Locanda Vini e Olii in Brooklyn won't do any indoor dining until every staff member has been fully vaccinated.



Restaurants in New York City have a problem. They've been given the OK to let more customers eat indoors, up to 50% capacity. That is the highest it's been since the pandemic started. But now restaurant owners are weighing safety concerns against financial pressures. Here's Camille Petersen.

CAMILLE PETERSEN, BYLINE: The dining room of Locanda Vini e Olli, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, is inside a 100-year-old apothecary. It has dark wood shelves, deep cabinets with glass doors and a floor made of small, pearly tiles. But right now, the dining room is a storage closet, mostly for outdoor dining equipment.

MICHAEL SCHALL: We store the empty propane heaters here. And here where there used to be - in the front window, where it used to be a really romantic table, now it's just filled with plates and glassware.

PETERSEN: Michael Schall is one of Locanda Vini e Olli's owners. He says the restaurant won't do any indoor dining until every staff member has been fully vaccinated. Even then, he plans to focus on outdoor dining and, because of safety concerns, keep indoor limited, using it for rainy or cold days. Willie Filkowski has been a server here for almost five years. He says it feels good to reopen slowly.

WILLIE FILKOWSKI: We have a lot of peace of mind with how things work, and I think that ties into not opening inside. Like, wait. We've got it figured out outside, you know? That's great. Let's just keep it like that.

PETERSEN: Schall says he can hold off on indoor dining because of luck. Locanda Vini e Olli is on the corner of a block with a wide sidewalk. More tables can actually fit outside than inside, and most tables are surrounded by three sturdy plastic walls. So even in winter, the restaurant has been making a decent profit from outdoor dining.

SCHALL: We've had the luxury of being able to play it really safe. But there's a lot of people who I know who haven't had that luxury. And they, in order just to survive, have to open their doors inside.

PETERSEN: After a tough winter, Chris Maestro welcomes the return of indoor dining. Maestro owns a bar in Brooklyn called Bierwax. He says the financial cushion he developed over the summer and fall faded pretty fast.

CHRIS MAESTRO: We had days that we only made, you know, $100 and paid more in a wage to staff.

PETERSEN: Maestro worries about the safety of indoor dining, especially because of the new COVID-19 variants. But he doesn't feel like he has a choice.

MAESTRO: It's difficult to try to squeeze the dollar from our current situation. I have a business to run, and we're going to try to do the best that we can do with what we're given.

PETERSEN: To make the most of his space, Maestro just put up a more permanent outdoor dining structure on the sidewalk. He's basically running three dining rooms now - a limited indoor one, one on the sidewalk and another in the bar's backyard.

MAESTRO: And it's a whole - another new ballgame for us to try to manage.

PETERSEN: He's investing in a reservation system to keep seating as organized as possible, especially as the weather warms up and more people go out.


PETERSEN: In Manhattan's Lower East Side, Jay Lue says things haven't changed much for her restaurant, Thailicious, since she reopened indoor dining.

JAY LUE: It's not that good. It's not that bad. It's, like, stay still.

PETERSEN: Lue thinks that's partly because many people are not ready to dine indoors yet due to safety concerns. But she says the restaurant's bigger problem is that huge chunks of her customer base - office workers, tourists and college students - are still not back in the neighborhood.

LUE: It's like a ghost town. Like, not people walking around here, so it's very hard for us.

PETERSEN: Like many restaurant owners, Lue is waiting for a day beyond capacity percentages, when the city gets back to its normal rhythm. Until that happens, Lue is opening all the indoor and outdoor tables she can. And she's trying to talk to every customer who comes in to let them know their business counts.

For NPR News, I'm Camille Petersen in New York.