Restaurant Owners In Orange Zones Relieved After New York State Allows Indoor Dining

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — New York will allow all restaurants in Orange Zones to open for indoor dining. The announcement came a day after a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled over 90 restaurants in Erie County’s Orange Zone could follow Yellow Zone guidance.

A map of the Orange Zone in Chemung County, which stretches from Elmira to Horseheads. (New York Forward)

In a statement Thursday, a counsel to Governor Andrew Cuomo said, although they disagree with the court’s decision, the ruling will apply to all restaurants in Orange Zones.  Meanwhile, the state will review the decision.

The state’s COVID-19 microcluster restrictions are determined by an area’s hospital capacity and range from yellow to orange to red, in order of severity. Restaurants in Yellow Zones can have indoor dining at 50 percent capacity and no more than four people at a table.

For Gaetano Ruggiero, that’s a difference that will allow his restaurant to stay open. He owns Louie’s, an Italian restaurant in Horseheads. It falls within Chemung County’s Orange Zone, which has been in place since October.

Just hours before the announcement, he was talking to a bookkeeper about shutting down until the situation improves.

“Financially it was getting close for us,” Ruggerio said. “I set myself a threshold that if I reached a certain number in my bank account I would have to close because I would need money to reopen.”

Restaurants in Orange Zones were allowed to do outdoor dining along with takeout and delivery, but Ruggerio doesn’t have the needed space.

Without income from indoor dining, he had to furlough some staff. Others, mainly single moms, he kept on for smaller tasks like cleaning so they could pay their bills.

Even then, it was difficult to manage expenses.

“All the bills are the same. Rent, utilities, and all that stuff,” Ruggerio explained. “Between ordering food, and then you have spoilage because you don’t know what the day brings—if you’ll have a good takeout business for that day.”

Louie’s is one of 11 Chemung County restaurants that sued the state over financial damages. That case closed, but Ruggerio said the petition filed by Chemung County officials in late December furthers their request. In it, County Executive Christopher Moss asked the Governor and the Department of Health to lift the Orange Zone restrictions entirely.

According to New York’s Cluster Action Initiative metrics, a geographic area may be considered an Orange Zone if it has a 4 percent positivity rate on a 7-day average over the last 10 days and is located in a region that has reached 85 percent of hospital capacity, or if the state considers the region’s rate of hospital admissions unacceptably high. Chemung County currently has a 5.8 percent positivity rate on a seven-day average and hospital capacity in the Southern Tier is at 59 percent.

Restrictions for Orange Zones also extend to schools, which may only do remote instruction.

Chemung County Spokesperson Vinnie Azzerelli said the county will still wait for its case to be heard by a New York State Supreme Court justice in Binghamton next Tuesday.

For restaurant owners and their furloughed staff, Thursday’s rule change means they can get back on their feet.

“We were waiting for this for a long time and everything,” Ruggerio said. “It’s like a big sigh of relief for me.”

He said the first thing to do is call his staff and reopen dining right away.