'If we don't fight for our survival, who will?' Port Chester rally urges return of indoor dining
Port Chester restaurant owners, their staffs and families, spent a cold Wednesday morning marching from Grace Church Street to village hall to demand action from local officials so they can reopen their businesses.
The goal of the protest, according to organizer Carlos Santos, owner of Aqui Es Santa Fe, is "to show elected officials the faces of the people who are suffering." About 50 people participated in the march.
Port Chester was declared a COVID-19 orange zone Nov. 10 which shut down indoor dining for restaurants.Only takeout and outdoor dining of four people per table is allowed. At the time gyms and salons were also shuttered but have since reopened at a reduced capacity. Yet the restrictions on restaurants remain in place.
Still, the number of COVID-19 cases in this dense community continues to challenge the village. As of Wednesday, there were 320 active cases in Port Chester, according to county data, as testing has been concentrated in the village.
The state released contact tracing data from earlier this month noting COVID-19 exposure at restaurants was far less compared to social gatherings statewide.
"They say indoor dining is a cause of COVID, yet our dining rooms have been closed for two months and the numbers are still the same," Santos said. "So, how is it that we're the cause?
"We understand the severity of the situation and have taken all precautions and followed all safety measures."
Neither he, nor the owners of six other restaurants The Journal News/lohud spoke with — David Sorto of Rinconcito Salvadoreño, Dianna Loiselle of Telly's Taverna, Allison Canas of Acuario Restaurant, Anthony Capone of Mary Ann's and Beth Barnes of Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House — has been linked to any coronavirus cases. None have been approached by contact tracers.
What is also frustrating, they say, is that diners can — and do — drive 2 miles to eat inside restaurants in Rye or Rye Brook, which shares part of the same zip code as Port Chester.
The situation has given the village a stigma of infection, said Beth Barnes, who owns Saltaire restaurant with her husband Len Barnes.
"People are afraid to come to Port Chester because they hear orange zone," added Dianna Loiselle of Telly's Taverna.
Many blame the inaction of local officials for not helping them and for the restaurant closures that have already occurred — Coals and Eugene's have recently closed.
Santos said his business is down 80% since the start of the orange zone. For Acuario, it's 65%; at Rinconcito Salvadoreño, 70%. Saltaire has been closed since the orange zone mandate with Len Barnes saying it made no sense for him to do takeout. "We lose less money by temporarily closing," he said.
The impetus for Wednesday's protest came after Santos said he had to turn down 50 callers asking for reservations the day after Christmas. He said he's repeatedly reached out to local officials and gotten nowhere.
"I can tell you this," he said. "This wouldn't happen in Rye."
David Sorto of Rinconcito Salvadoreño echoed the frustration. "We're in limbo and they don't seem to care," he said. "They don't seem to get that it's not just the restaurant that's affected, but the whole town. And many many lives. It's a domino effect."
"If we don't fight for our survival who will?" said Allison Canas of Acuario Restaurant.
Local and state officials that represent the area have voiced support for the beleaguered restaurants.
State Sen. Shelley Mayer told The Journal News/lohud she and Assemblyman Steve Otis have reached out to governor's office to discuss allowing Port Chester restaurants to reopen inside dining.
She noted the village was placed in the orange zone when the state designated COVID micro-clusters based on test-positivity rates instead of hospitalization data, the figure they put more emphasis into now.
"We think there's a safe path forward," said Mayer.
Mayer said she's been frustrated by the lack of an individualized analysis of Port Chester by the state. She argued when the village was in the yellow zone, it didn't seem like indoor dining was contributing to further spread of the virus.
Emails to the governor's office and state health department have not been returned.
Working toward reopening
Canas hoped Wednesday's show of force would help village officials see the severity of the situation. "These aren't just people; these are our lives," she said. "We're a working community and we want to work."
Trustee Joan Grangenois-Thomas said without federal aid for the restaurant industry, business owners in the village have little choice but to plead for indoor dining. She stressed the economy consists of hard working families of all backgrounds "who have been left without the resources that large businesses can easily get."
"It just seems like there isn't enough of a conversation about other ways of providing relief so we don't have to put people at risk," Grangenois-Thomas said. "And I'm not sure why that isn't happening."
Westchester County Executive George Latimer said Monday said he is advocating with state and local officials to see if a tweak to orange zone restrictions can be made.
He said restaurants that can't have diners eat inside is "functionally shutting the restaurant down."
Earlier this month when fitness centers and beauty salons were allowed to reopen, Port Chester Mayor Richard Falanka said in a statement he wanted restaurants to also be taken into similar consideration by Gov. Cuomo.
In an email, village trustee Frank Ferrara also called on state officials to either allow Port Chester restaurants to operate in the same way as other establishments in Westchester or provide a cash grant lifeline until restrictions are lifted, noting that if the orange zone restrictions continue, it is unlikely many local eateries will survive the final months of the pandemic.
"Policy that overcompensates against our businesses is not an answer," Ferrara said.
Len Barnes of Saltaire isn't hopeful change is coming anytime soon, especially with the Capitol Theatre, which fed into the restaurant business, closed.
"Dr. Fauci says it will get worse before it gets better so I'm not sure what that will mean for us," he said. "I really have no idea what will happen in Port Chester but I don’t hold out much in its future as a restaurant town."
Jeanne Muchnick covers food and dining. Click here for her most recent articles and follow her latest dining adventures on Instagram @lohud_food or via the lohudfood newsletter. David Propper covers New Rochelle and the shore towns. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: dg_props. Our local coverage is only possible with support from our readers.