(Photo courtesy of Caffe Dante, by Giada Paoloni)

Sneezeguards used to be the stuff of Vegas buffets and midtown lunch delis, but as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re now essential equipment in New York’s trendiest restaurants.

While not strictly mandated by the safety regulations put in place by both Albany and City Hall, barriers made of plexiglass, acrylics and other varieties of plastics are now common to the point of ubiquity.  Some restaurants are simply placing plexiglass sheets on metal stands between tables, scarcely trying to hide their utilitarian nature. Others are deploying handcrafted wooden “privacy screens” with lovingly etched designs.

(Courtesy of Caffe Dante)

At Caffe Dante, an award-winning bar with Parisian styling on the corner of Hudson and Perry, one can find “curated glass dividers donning witty cocktail-hour inspired phases in golden writing,” according to a PR rep.  At their West Village location, between Bleecker and Houston on MacDougal, the “Milanese cafe” vibe (think handcrafted wallpaper, a marble bar, and vintage lighting) has been complimented, in the outdoor dining area, with artisanally made dividers bearing the cafe’s gilded logo, a handsome calligraphy D hand-applied by a traditional sign maker. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Stephanie Markowitz, the owner of Il Corallo Trattoria at 176 Prince Street, didn’t think dividers were worth the money until the city’s outdoor dining program was extended indefinitely. “I realized that if we were going to be doing this through the winter when the numbers will go up, I was worried about both [customers’] safety and really appreciating the support people are showing by dining out.”

Markowitz, who opted for generic dividers she bought up while visiting a restaurant supply store in search of a drink mixer, said that because Il Corallo isn’t a “trendy, aesthetic-forward restaurant,” appearances weren’t much of a factor. 

For restaurants that are more aesthetically conscious, the city has produced a list of dozens of local businesses that can supply PPE, including barriers for restaurants. 

Yawn Moon, one of the listed providers, wasn’t originally set up for the production of barriers. The fabrication studio normally specializes in set fabrication and design for television and film, as well as experiential retail and fashion installations. “It’s all hocus-pocus, smoke-and-mirrors kind of stuff,” said owner Seth Williamson. “But with the pandemic, retail, restaurants and showbiz, all that stuff kind of ground to a halt.”

Many of Williamson’s designs are built around enabling a more comfortable and stylish set of divisions. One interior dining module lets a comfortably seated pair be together sans masks, with shelving units that can contain decor elements behind them, while waitstaff can access the table through a narrow slot. A proposal for an outdoor seating area uses potted plants around the base of the transparent divider to both soften the lines and add a natural sort of barrier one would expect between seats in parks. 

“My business is still afloat,” Williamson said, “but just by the grace of God and SBA and the PPP loans. In no way has this offset what I lost. I’m still in the hole. This year is such an epic loss. Manufacturing dividers is one solution to plug a gaping hole in my operational financing.” 

With some of Yawn Moon’s typical business picking up as parts of the television industry return to work, larger suppliers and manufactures will need to take the lead in order to fulfill the  “wartime production” of materials that balance the demands of safety and business.

Markowitz isn’t sure if the dividers she bought have necessarily paid for themselves already, but they do allow her to look ahead and factor into her plans to winterize her outdoor space. She’s already thinking ahead to the holidays.

“In my personal experience as an almost lifetime New Yorker and someone who’s been in the restaurant business for like 26 years, this is something no one ever thought would happen. But now that it has happened, this is something that lets us work towards making the city special again.”