It is now estimated that half of all bars and restaurants in New York City will close forever, as a result of the loss of customers due to fears of Covid transmission, mandatory lockdowns, and the slow pace of reopening. Just a few days ago, the City finally permitted indoor dining, but in only ¼ of available restaurant space. This happens just as colder weather has begun to end the benefit of outdoor sidewalk dining, which since June has been the only lifeline for restaurants and bars trying to make money during the pandemic.
But it is too little, too late for the half of all restaurants and bars that will never reopen.
Among those victims is my favorite coffee bar in the city, Grounded, which used to reside at 28 Jane Street in the West Village in Manhattan. I had been a regular at Grounded since shortly after it opened in 2004. I did some of my best writing there, including my favorite article, “Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid,” which contains the fruit of my 15 years experience working on Wall Street as an electric utility analyst and investor, and proposes a novel way to deregulate the electricity industry.
I wrote ⅓ of my doctoral dissertation there, as I did many of my articles that have appeared on this august website.
Grounded was simply my favorite place to write. Its eclectic atmosphere, loaded with plants and quirky West Village New York City people, its longtime employees, many of whom I knew by name, and its friendly owner, Jen, all combined to create an atmosphere that encouraged creativity. Over the years, I met playwrights, plenty of Columbia students who liked to take the subway down from Columbia’s Upper Manhattan campus to the West Village, and people who earned a living in odd ways, such as the Caucasian fellow who wrote English subtitles for Chinese movies that he watched all day, every day at the coffee shop.
Throughout this time, I sympathized as I saw Jen struggle to make a living from her business, a struggle made harder by capricious and callous city and state government officials. For example, for years she unsuccessfully tried to get a simple license to serve wine and beer, something that some of her more politically connected competitors seemed to have less trouble obtaining.
Then there was the time I stopped by to do some writing and saw a padlock on the door and some sort of official notice from the mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (or some such agency). Apparently, a city inspector had shown up one day and declared that the bathroom was too small to accommodate a wheelchair, which was true. So, the inspector shut her business down on the spot, and it remained closed for a week while Jen hurriedly tried to find a contractor to rectify the “emergency.”
Over the years, both before and after the emergency bathroom installation, I only saw a wheelchair patron once. The only person who really seemed to have been disabled was Jen, who lost a significant portion of her precious, tiny kitchen space to the ridiculously gigantic bathroom she was made to install.
The lack of a wine and beer license financially hurt a great deal over the years, but it was the mandatory lockdown due to Covid that did in her business. Now, as the owner of the bar next door tells me, the latest padlock that I saw on her door is permanent.
I am saddened that I have to write this article in an unfamiliar place. Multiply my story by the hundreds of thousands of patrons of their favorite store, bar, restaurant or coffee shop all over the City — and the hardworking owners of these establishments who poured their souls, lives, and savings into them — and you have a partial measure of the human cost, not just of Covid, but of the draconian lockdown policy and the other death-by-a-thousand-cuts regulations that have magnified its harm.
Raymond C. Niles is a Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD in Economics from George Mason University and an MBA in Finance & Economics from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. Prior to embarking on his academic career, Niles worked for more than 15 years on Wall Street as a senior equity research analyst at Citigroup, Schroders, and Goldman Sachs, and as managing partner of a hedge fund investing in energy securities. Niles has published a book chapter and numerous articles in scholarly and popular publications.