NEW YORK — After months of loosening coronavirus restrictions, New York state took a step backward Wednesday, limiting the maximum size of private gatherings to 10 people and ordering restaurants, bars and gyms to close no later than 10 p.m.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the new restrictions, which go into effect Friday, are a painful but necessary step to curb what has been an accelerating resurgence of the coronavirus.
"It's tough on bars and restaurants. It's tough on gyms. It's tough on everyone," the Democrat said. "I would say we are within sight of the finish line. The vaccine has been discovered. It has to be perfected, it had to be operationalized, but we see the finish line."
The limitation on gatherings in private homes comes two weeks before families traditionally get together for Thanksgiving.
The announcement was met with dismay from hard-hit restaurant owners and their advocates. Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, called it "a huge blow to the restaurant industry that is desperately trying to stay afloat."
Cuomo spoke as rates of coronavirus infection continued to take off in New York and elsewhere.
Over the past seven days, New York has seen an average of 3,600 new infections and nearly 22 deaths per day due to COVID-19. That average number of new cases has doubled in the past 14 days.
As recently as late August, the state was averaging around 600 new cases per day. Tuesday, it recorded 4,820, a new high since April. More than 1,600 people were in the hospital with the virus across the state Tuesday.
Cuomo shut down all nonessential businesses in the spring when New York was the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States and started allowing restaurants and other businesses to open at limited capacity when infection rates appeared under control.
Even without the early closing time, restaurateurs have complained that the restrictions make it difficult to stay in business.
Alfred Castricone, who owns a country-western nightclub, a neighborhood bar and a bowling alley in western New York, said the new closing time is just the latest in a string of pandemic restrictions that have made it difficult to keep his businesses afloat.
"For the first time in 50 years in business, I don't know what I'm going to do," Castricone said at The New Four Aces in Blasdell, south of Buffalo. "I owed no money when this thing started and now I have $346,000 in loans and I'm over $800,000 in lost business. They change the rules constantly. And now he wants to close me down at 10 p.m. Where am I supposed to get more money?"
Castricone said his nightclub doesn't get busy until after midnight, when local factory shifts end, so he's going to have to shut it down. "I have a bunch of college kids working for me, I have single moms working for me, and guys with families. How are these people going to pay their bills?"
Castricone and several other nightclub owners are suing Cuomo and other state officials in federal court, claiming the restrictions are unconstitutional.
In Rochester, Kelly Metras said her two restaurants already have been closing before 10 p.m. because the pandemic restrictions have drawn down demand. The mandates have been stressful, she said, but she understands the importance of keeping people safe.
"We are just hoping that we can stay open in some capacity to keep our employees paid," Metras said by email. "It is apparent that financial assistance for employees and business owners will not be passed any time soon."
Cuomo's announcement came days after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that bars and restaurants in his state would have to halt indoor dining at 10 p.m. starting Thursday.
Cuomo said further restrictions, including limiting restaurants to operating at 25% capacity across the state, may be necessary if COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.
The new closing time applies to all establishments licensed by the State Liquor Authority. Only carry-out service will be allowed after 10 p.m. Cuomo urged local governments to enforce the rules.
After 10 p.m., "If the lights are on and people are drinking, they get a summons," he said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the new rules, a spokesperson tweeted, saying they were necessary to fight back a second wave of the virus.