PORT WASHINGTON, NY — As Long Island restaurants reopened this week for indoor service as part of the state's third phase of restarting the economy — the first time they've been able to offer indoor service since mid-March — restaurant owners faced a difficult task. Not only would they have to take major public health and safety steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, they wondered how long it would take patrons to be comfortable eating inside again.
Three months ago, it was common for eateries to be packed Friday and Saturday nights, including Pepe Rosso 24 on Manorhaven Boulevard. But a statewide, monthslong stay-home order and directive that all New York eateries offer only delivery and takeout forced the pizzeria to adapt its practices.
Though the state has gone from the worst situation in the country in America to the best — just 1 percent of COVID-19 tests are returning positive — people appear to be treating Phase 3 of the NY Forward reopening plan with trepidation. After all, nearly 400 people have tested positive for the disease in the Port Washington peninsula, including 96 in Manorhaven. More than 2,100 people in Nassau County died of the disease as of Friday evening.
At Pepe Rosso, indoor service was available Wednesday, but people weren't exactly knocking down the door to be seated inside.
"I feel people are still kind of debating," Michael Tizzano, owner of the pizzeria, told Patch on Thursday. People seemed hesitant to risk coming into contact with the virus, especially one that can transfer from person to person through the air.
Unlike many other establishments, particularly on Port Washington's Main Street, Pepe Rosso has always offered ample outside seating, which boasts an inviting atmosphere of hanging plants and lights. Another advantage — patrons sit on a flat surface rather than an incline.
Many restaurants have adopted paper menus and QR code menus, but Pepe Rosso opted to keep its menus as is. That's why masked waiters take it upon themselves to assure patrons the menus are sanitized between use. Customers have to wear masks when not seated, and Tizzano has even placed stickers on the ground to encourage people to remain socially distanced near the bathrooms and takeout areas.
During the coronavirus era, Tizzano is thankful that Pepe Rosso is a larger space and has three doors. Restaurants now have to remain at no more than 50 percent capacity, and the layout gives people plenty of space to walk without coming too close to others.
"Other restaurants are small places. I don't know how they do it," he said.
Tizzano said he even had to buy a temperature-checking device — under the state's reopening plan, daily health screenings are required for food service workers, but not customers or delivery staffers. Screening must determine whether the worker has had COVID-19 symptoms in the last two weeks, tested positive that time, or come in close contact with someone who has. Furthermore, the state requires that condiments come in either single-use, disposable containers or reusable containers that are regularly disinfected.
But Tizzano, an immigrant from Capri, Italy, doesn't feel the requirements are overly burdensome. He watched as hospitals in parts of his native country became overwhelmed by the virus. Most other restaurant owners don't either, but some he has talked to have run into trouble getting their workers to come back. In one case, a chef at another establishment said he feared he'd contract the virus if he came back. But Tizzano suspects it was for another reason.
"You don't want to come back to work because you're making more money staying home," he said.
New Yorkers who were forced out of work during the pandemic receive $600 a week on top of their regular unemployment payments as part of the federal CARES Act. They'll keep receiving that money through July, and that money comes on top of a federal stimulus check that was sent to all Americans in April.
Fortunately for Tizzano, Pepe Rosso has been able to retain all its staffers. During the shutdown, some changed jobs and others adapted. Delivery drivers, for example, began utilizing contactless delivery methods, which led to some headaches in and of itself. People who order a pizza delivery ought to leave a table or chair outside the door. Otherwise, the delivery driver will have to leave the box on the ground, and that tasty pie might become dinner for something else — ants.
"I had to put up a post," Tizzano said. "I said, 'Please, it's not just for you, but for me."
Even with the added headaches of serving pizza during the coronavirus era, Tizzano remains thankful that his business survived when many others did not. His business saw a dip in sales during the first couple weeks of the shutdown, but stabilized thereafter.
"At the beginning, I was scared," he said, noting he offered large discounts and specials to draw customers, including so-called "Sup-Port pies" and a "Kids Pizza Kit and Pie" contest.
He credited the strong Port Washington community for helping to keep his business afloat, some of whom spent hundreds of dollars on gift cards, knowing he needed the money just to keep the lights on.
"I was basically asking — I was begging — for support," he said. "One of my first posts was a picture of a superhero and I said, 'Our superpower, it's you. Customers. Our superpower comes from customers.'"