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Restaurants in Rochester's "orange zone" can reopen dining rooms

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Restaurant owners in Rochester’s “orange zone” are cautiously celebrating a decision by state officials, spurred by an Erie County court ruling, that will allow them to offer indoor dining again, but at half-capacity.

The state’s decision is a win of sorts for restaurant owners, who have been calling on the state to let them reopen their dining rooms. It also means scores of restaurant employees will be able to go back to work. Chuck Cerankosky, owner of Good Luck, Lucky’s, and CURE, said the change in designation would allow at least 80 percent of his furloughed staff to return.

Chuck Cerankosky. - PHOTO BY MIKE MARTINEZ
  • PHOTO BY MIKE MARTINEZ
  • Chuck Cerankosky.
Cerankosky was in a meeting to figure out how to begin the process of reopening when he took a call from CITY Thursday.

“We’re very happy to have worked with members of Rochester city council and members of the county administration to work to get a more equitable set of rules, a more sensible set of rules” Cerankosky said.

But for now, the reprieve is temporary.

On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office released a statement from its counsel, Kumiki Gibson, that stated all restaurants operating in the state’s orange zones could begin operating as if they were in a yellow zone, meaning indoor dining is allowed at 50 percent capacity.



The announcement came after New York State Supreme Court Justice Henry Nowak on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction against the state in a lawsuit filed by a group of Erie County restaurants. Nowak’s ruling permitted the restaurants that were part of the lawsuit to open their dining rooms under yellow zone rules. In the ruling, Nowak said the state has not consistently applied the criteria for setting orange, yellow, and red zones under its micro-cluster strategy to slow COVID-19 spread.

“Considering the record presented, this court cannot find evidence that the state had a rational basis to designate portions of Erie County as an orange zone on November 18, 2020,” Nowak wrote.

The state and the restaurants are to return to court on Jan. 19 to argue the merits of a permanent injunction.

Gibson’s statement implied that the state will argue against Nowak’s ruling.

“We are reviewing the decision,” Gibson said in a prepared statement. “While that process is ongoing, to ensure uniformity and fairness, all restaurants operating in orange zones can now operate under rules governing yellow zones. We disagree with the court's decision and its impact on public health as federal CDC data clearly demonstrates indoor dining increases COVID-19 spread.”
The wording of Gibson’s statement leaves restaurant owners like Jonathan Swan wary. In a recent commentary published by CITY, Swan, the owner of Ox and Stone, Swan Dive, Dorado, Daily Refresher, Roux, and Vern’s, reflected on the sense of loss faced by communities due to restaurant closures.
Ox and Stone. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN SWAN
  • PHOTO BY JONATHAN SWAN
  • Ox and Stone.
Swan said he is “tempering his excitement” about the news that restaurants in orange zones can reopen their dining rooms.

“It’s the unknown,” Swan said. “Just like this news has come, and, frankly, all news has come from the governor, it’s impacted me negatively from a timing perspective. We haven’t been able to plan anything since March of last year, because any time we plan anything, the rug is pulled out from under us. I don’t anticipate this thing being any different.”

Swan and Cerankosky both argued that reopening at yellow zone status is not necessarily about bringing in fresh profit for restaurants, but that it helps keep the servers, bartenders, and other staff who work in the establishments’ heads above water.

“I don’t think any restaurant can open and be profitable to any substantial degree with 50 percent occupancy, you don’t design a restaurant to do that,” Swan said. “What it does do though is it gets people back to work, if it’s done in concert with the payroll protection loans that are coming in the next few weeks or so.”

In a statement, the Rochester chapter of the New York Restaurant Association urged the state leadership to keep the rules on restaurants fair and equitable and said it pleads “with New York State to continue to let the goals of uniformity and fairness govern all restrictions for restaurants moving forward.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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