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'A Bridge To The Vaccine': Restaurant Rapid Tests Guests, Employees For COVID-19 Before Entering

One restaurant in New York City thinks rapid testing is the key to making dining out safer during the pandemic.

Restaurant and music venue City Winery launched a rapid COVID-19 testing pilot program. Everyone — employees and customers — need to get a negative test result before entering.

At the new City Winery flagship location at Pier 57, guests and workers take the test in a winery room that’s between the entrance and the restaurant space, founder and CEO Michael Dorf says. After sipping on a glass of bubbles for 10 to 12 minutes while awaiting the results, guests can enter the restaurant upon testing negative.

“We felt bubbles was a very appropriate beverage for the wait because in fact, what we’re trying to do is create a safe hospitality bubble,” he says.

Of the 400 people who were tested last weekend, one staff member tested positive on the second day, he says. And City Winery is still spacing tables six to eight feet apart and asking everyone to wear a mask in addition to the rapid test program.

The restaurant industry has been crushed this year. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a Senate committee on Monday that restaurants need grant money — not loans — to stay afloat during the pandemic.

People in New York City are accustomed to dropping a fair amount of money to go out for a nice dinner, but this test will cost $50 per person. City Winery is losing money on the program, paying $65 in total per guest test and taking on the cost of testing 40 to 50 employees each night, Dorf says. He hopes the cost of testing will drop.

The venue’s large indoor capacity — 1,000 people — makes this program more feasible for City Winery compared to a smaller restaurant, he says.

To help another struggling industry, airlines are also floating the idea of testing people before they board a flight. Dorf acknowledges that the people who can’t afford the extra cost of the test won’t be able to dine at the restaurant but says the program serves as “a bridge to the vaccine.”

“If cost of travel and cost of dining out goes up, it starts to make a separation between those who are the haves and have nots. And that certainly is unfortunate,” Dorf says. “But our approach, while it certainly is going to those who can afford it, might allow us to keep operations going.”

City Winery had 1,400 employees in February — but by April that number dropped to 75, he says. Even with outdoor dining, business still took a hit this summer because City Winery couldn’t host live concerts.

Despite the “absolute disaster” this pandemic caused for many people, Dorf says he’s a survivor and plans to keep working hard to help his business.

While he’s not yet daydreaming about the return of a once vibrant food city, he finds solace in being able to plan for how much money he’s going to lose every month and how much he’ll need to stay afloat — a notable improvement from a month ago.

“I have to say, I’ve got a harsh toke of reality juice these days. We’re only halfway through it,” he says. “There’s at least light at the end of the tunnel.”

Mark Navin produced and edited this story for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

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