Patroons enjoy dining al fresco during an Alive on 25 event in 2016. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Suffolk County will grant automatic approval to restaurants seeking to expand their seating into outdoor areas, County Executive Steve Bellone announced today.

“We will grant automatic approval when they are approved at the local level,” Bellone said during a press conference this afternoon. “We want to make sure there is nothing preventing restaurant owners from being able to provide that service and get that business activity expanded,” he said.

Restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery only since Gov. Andrew Cuomo, by executive order in mid-March, shut down their dining rooms to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

When restaurants are allowed to reopen — currently not until Phase Three — their dining rooms will be limited to 50% of their rated capacity. That limitation will make survival impossible, according to local restaurateurs and the trade group that represents them countywide, the Suffolk County Restaurants and Taverns Association.

Riverhead Town officials have developed a plan to allow restaurants to expand seating on sidewalks and in parking lots in order to try to maintain their pre-COVID seating capacity. Supervisor Yvette Aguiar may adopt the new rules needed to implement the plan in her next emergency declaration order, she said during the Town Board work session this morning.

But even with permission from town and county governments, restaurants can’t do more than takeout and delivery until the start of Phase Three or by the governor’s sooner authorization.

A region could move between phases more quickly than the two-week period the governor initially said would be required, Cuomo indicated at a recent media briefing.

The decision to accelerate phases will be influenced by “what has come before us,” Bellone said today, referring to the experience of other regions that opened prior to Long Island, which began reopening for Phase One businesses yesterday.

The metrics by which a region’s progress are judged have all been improving, Bellone said. The number of new positive test results and hospitalizations have been declining. At the same time, hospital capacity has increased.

However, neither Bellone nor Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott could provide the region’s current the rate of transmission — the metric the governor identified as the key measure by which to judge if reopening is causing an uptick in the coronavirus.

Cuomo on May 4 said the rate of transmission must remain under 1.1. That represents the number of people, on average, that a person with COVID-19 infects. Cuomo said during his daily press briefing that day that New York’s rate of transmission was then .8, which meant the virus was under control.

“We reopen businesses, do it in phases, watch that rate of transmission. If it gets over 1.1, stop everything immediately,” he said, because then it becomes an outbreak again.

A week later, on May 11, Cuomo announced that “regional control rooms” would monitor infection and hospitalization rates to ensure that their regions keep their rate of transmission below 1.1.

Bellone today said the rate of transmission is calculated by the state and it had not yet been provided to the county. He said Suffolk officials would ask the state health department for the information.

It is possible a declining rate of transmission could result in an accelerated reopening, Bellone said.

Certainly, local businesses are anxious for such an acceleration.

“The restaurants were hoping this was going to happen this week,” said Riverhead Chamber of Commerce president Bob Kern.

“If this doesn’t happen for three or four weeks they’re going to keep closing up,” Kern said, noting that restaurants in other towns have permanently shut down and expressing concern that some in Riverhead were bound to follow suit.

Kern said government should be relying more on businesses to structure reopening plans.

“Businesses solve problems every day. Instead the governor is treating them like children,” Kern said.

“Bellone has said businesses know how to innovate. So let them,” Kern said, expressing frustration at the lack of communication he and business owners have experienced.

“It gets paralyzing,” Kern said. “And people are not going to stay paralyzed too much longer. They’re either going to fold or just open up.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.