Don't half ass it.

Let’s evaluate the concept of a phased re-opening of social gathering spaces.   While the phased plan of initially permitting businesses that can enable physical distancing makes sense in general, such an approach does not work for gathering spaces, beyond table service restaurants with relatively large (by NYC standards) dining rooms.  Other gathering spaces, like bars, clubs, and venues, which rely on a free-flow of customer movement and interaction cannot reasonably support physical distancing. 

50% is actually less than zero

How about a simple reduction of capacity by 50%?  Putting aside the absurdity of the idea that businesses can somehow operate under a 50% occupancy reduction, occupancy cap limits do not provide any meaningful physical distancing or reasonable viral spread mitigation, because patrons will naturally gravitate towards each other anyway.

 

Beyond the ineffectiveness, a phased re-opening of social gathering can be harmful:

False Hopes

The phased approach creates the perception that our small businesses no longer need assistance because they are “operating” and serving customers. Our businesses already operate on small margins and disproportionally high overhead (rent and insurance) in NYC. They are not financially viable with any sort of restrictions on occupancy. And let’s be honest about the fact that it will be hard enough inherently when social gathering businesses are permitted to re-open in a local economy that is severely recessed. The fact of the matter is that our businesses will need financial assistance from the government until we reach a full-scale re-opening.

 

Let’s plan around that and stop pretending that throwing bones like “liquor delivery,” “zoom concerts,” and “50% occupancy” will do anything. (And for the record, please don’t ask our businesses to be more “creative” in order to adapt, until after our government displays a similar amount of ingenuity in finding the workable long-term assistance that is required.)

Disruptive and Expensive

The phased approach is disruptive to business operations, employee management, and requires extra investment to implement. We designed our businesses to operate in a certain manner, which is rightfully based on full scale unfettered occupancy. Re-tooling to support an interim reduced operation—which doesn’t work anyway—costs money in terms of planning, training, space reconfiguration, process re-engineering, rebranding, and new supplies and inventory. Then there would need to be an additional investment once again in undoing the interim operation when a full re-opening is permitted. On top of that, there is a threat of rolling shut downs, which would mean that this process of operational shift would need to occur multiple times.

 

Beyond the impact on the business itself, this is terribly disruptive to the lives of the employees of social gathering spaces. They will need to adjust to strange new unstable schedules, income fluctuations, and a lifestyle of potentially moving on and off of unemployment----not to mention, the real possibility of unnecessarily exposing themselves to the virus in a non-essential workplace.

Risk of Spread

The best public health approach is to keep social gathering spaces entirely closed until we have reached the point where we can safely end physical distancing. There is no reason to risk worker/patron safety and potentially trigger another outbreak, particularly when a phased opening does not provide any economic benefits. All risk, no reward. And let’s be honest about the fact that enforcing physical distancing in a social gathering space will largely be reactionary after patrons have already violated guidelines---people will naturally mingle, until they are reminded by staff (which is limited of course) to separate.

Can the CARES Act PPP help us through this extended shut down?