New York business owner struggles during pandemic amid city regulations and mandates

Outdoor seating has become popularized over the pandemic and Celeste is no exception. The restaurant accommodates customers with multiple seating options both inside and out.Photo by Laura Studley.

Plexiglass barriers surround empty tables, an outdoor menu sign goes ignored. The once packed kitchen is silent. This is the everyday reality for Carmine Mitroni, the owner of Celeste, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. 

With the pandemic implementing additional restrictions on restaurants, local businesses, like Mitroni’s Celeste, have been forced to change their business models, adding more costs on top of already rising prices. 

“Food costs have gone up 40%,” Mitroni, 59, said. “I go to Home Depot and get wood [for plastic dividers], then there’s delivery. You have all these trays and paper and all this stuff. That’s gone up. All these things that you didn’t need before in mass quantities.” 

Carmine Mitroni, 59, has owned Italian restaurant Celeste, located on 84th and Amsterdam Ave., since 2002. Photo by Laura Studley.

Mitroni said before COVID, delivery was less than 3% of his business, but now it makes up half of the revenue, due to having only 20 tables at the restaurant. 

To offset costs, Mitroni said he wants to open earlier for happy hour, but there aren’t enough workers available to sustain longer hours. 

“We’re all short staffed,” he said. “There’s no personnel. Now, people can’t pay their rent, me being one of them. I’m able to make payroll. But I’m not making any money … I’m surviving, I’m keeping 18 people employed. That’s all.”

Now, restaurants are required to ask for vaccination cards along with a valid form of identification from every customer looking to dine in. The policy originally began on Aug. 17, but as of Sept. 13, businesses may be fined if they are not enforcing the mandate. 

“I’ve gotta be a bouncer,” Mitroni said. “You should have your license, it’s not enough to see your COVID vaccination. I have to actually see the photo ID. Either school, government, passport or driver’s license, how insane is that?”

And Mitroni is not alone. On Aug. 17, a group of small businesses filed a lawsuit against Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city of New York, in hopes to stop the vaccine requirement. 

“The Executive Order has rendered it impossible for anyone who chooses not to be vaccinated, for whatever reason, to work in the designated industries, wholly depriving them of their livelihood,” according to the lawsuit. 

Mitroni said the pandemic has made people “slaves” to the government, placing an impossible task on restaurants, noting that the regulations for businesses geared toward larger businesses and restaurant groups, something Celeste is not. 

“You can’t say we can’t serve anybody inside, but you’re allowing the cross town bus to be full,” Mitroni said. “There’s a dichotomy. I’m putting up barriers, sanitizing, cleaning everything, but people can have a private party in their apartment with 20 people and nobody’s going to enforce it.”

Data from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office from Dec. 2020 showed that restaurants and bars were responsible for 1.43% of COVID infection, the lawsuit said. This, compared to the 73.84% from in-home get-togethers. 

Celeste opened a year after 9/11 in 2002, a venture he called a “momentary lapse in sanity.” He intended it to be a model of a trattoria in Naples or Rome where customers had to move out of the way to let someone into their table. 

“Those days are gone,” Mitroni said. “I’ve lost customers because people are afraid to dine in.” 

Despite the COVID struggles, Mitroni continues his commitment to the food and the UWS community. Mitroni hopes that he will be able to have more personnel and business next May, but is uncertain. 

“I could be in Midtown where there’s no theatres or offices open,” he said. “It could be a lot worse.”