Ask the Commissioner: How Can We Keep Restaurants Open?

NYC's Commissioner of Small Business Services answers the most-asked questions of the month. In October, it's all about how restaurants can continue reopening and stay open safely as we head into the winter months.

By Jonnel Doris

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As a former entrepreneur and immigrant New Yorker, I have experienced many of the challenges our small business owners face — from navigating city regulations to seeking necessary resources. Now, as the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services, it is my main priority to respond, advise, and connect these small business owners to the help they need during this difficult time. Covid-19 is a health crisis that's triggered an economic crisis, and our small businesses are dealing with the crippling effects. While my focus is on NYC, many of the questions and concerns we hear from small business owners here are likely to be shared by entrepreneurs across the country. So once a month, I'll be writing this column to tackle a few of the questions we're getting the most.

In New York, the nearly 27,000 restaurants across our five boroughs play a major role in our economy, contributing to the vibrancy of our commercial corridors and the diversity of our city. This month, many business owners have questions about re-opening their restaurants. Here are a few of their most pressing inquiries:

I applied to participate in the Open Restaurants program but have not gotten a response yet. How do I check the status of my application?

A: During the pandemic, one key initiative that developed as an immediate response to help NYC's restaurant industry was the Open Restaurants program. It allowed restaurants across the five boroughs to use their outdoor space to serve their customers and keep New Yorkers employed. Over 10,500 restaurants applied and are participating, bringing back over 90,000 jobs.

The City has made the application for the Open Restaurants program swift and easy. After filling out an application to self-certify, a confirmation email is sent from the Department of Transportation to you. If you haven't received anything, check your spam folder.

Related: 3 Ways to Support Minority-Owned Businesses

You can also visit the Open Restaurants interactive dashboard to search your business name or location. If you're on this list, you're ready to participate.

Open Restaurants is now year-round, aiding in the restaurant industry's recovery and providing patrons with a safe way to enjoy their favorite cuisine. Participants in the Open Restaurants program who are interested in providing comfort heating for their customers in outdoor dining areas can now have heating devices. These heating devices are subject to the applicable guidance from FDNY and/or DOB. For more information visit

What should I do if I do not have a central air system?

A: We are doing everything we can to keep our city safe, and our four main tenets are helping us to accomplish this: Wash your hands, wear a face covering, practice social distancing, and stay home if you are sick. These guidelines, coupled with industry-specific information, are designed to create a healthier city. The latest guidelines are for restaurants wishing to reopen their indoor dining.

We know that not all restaurants can have central AC, so the following can be used to promote a safe working environment for you and your customers, while helping you avoid costly fines:

  • Invest in a portable air cleaner. When selecting one, consider units that provide the highest air change rate at appropriate performance level and do not generate harmful byproducts.

  • Open your windows. This will allow occupancy safety and comfort of occupants.

  • Prioritize window fans. Avoid using fans that recirculate air, set blower fans to low speed, and point them away from occupants. If your business has a ceiling fan, have it draw air upwards away from occupants.

  • Regularly inspect room ventilation systems. Ventilation systems must be properly operating and running for several hours daily. You may also set room ventilation systems to maximize fresh air intake.

  • Adopt additional ventilation and air filtration protocols. For more information on CDC and ASHRAE recommendations, please visit here.

Small Business Services works to help small business owners comply with city regulations before it becomes an issue. Our compliance advisors help small business owners understand common challenges through our virtual consultations. This educational tool is key to avoiding costly fines and penalties and is available in multiple languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Haitian Creole. Visit us at to set up a virtual compliance consultation.

I operate dinner boats. Can I reopen along with restaurants?

A: Business owners should always be clear on their primary business operation. Using the Business Reopening Look Up Tool, businesses can review industry-specific public health and safety guidelines.

Cruise liners can operate as restaurants and may leave their dock to serve their customers. However, they must follow indoor dining rules and regulations. This includes operating at a 25 percent capacity, checking clients' temperature, ensuring ventilation, and more. For a full list of indoor dining regulations, visit

Does SBS have any recruitment services I can use to hire more people for my restaurant?

A: Small Business Services is charged with helping our small business grow and thrive. One key way we do this is by helping New Yorkers find jobs and connecting businesses with the talent they need. Our Virtual Workforce1 Career Centers have been working with over 500 employers to fill 9,800 positions in food service, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, transportation, and warehousing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we've assisted over 700 businesses with over 12,600 job opportunities, connected over 3,800 New Yorkers to jobs with an average of $17.14 per hour, and helped almost 50,000 job seekers.

Restaurants are critical to our city at this time — they are a place where people can come together and break bread. This industry also employs over 300,000 New Yorkers across the five boroughs. Whether you dine inside, outdoors, or do takeout, it is important to support our restaurants. SBS is here to help and we are committed to supporting the unrivaled diversity of our restaurant community.

Related: New York City Offers Funding, Credit and Free Programs for Women Entrepreneurs. Here's a Rundown.

Jonnel Doris

Commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services

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