NYC outdoor dining a 'huge game-changer' for COVID-hit restaurants as opposition grows

·6-min read

Summer is over, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means outdoor dining is not going away anytime soon, even as the weather gradually cools.

Restaurant owners want to preserve external spaces — adopted in response to the pandemic — as more of a permanent thing, especially with the Delta variant making many patrons nervous about indoor dining. In New York City in particular, the trend exploded when public health officials shuttered dining rooms as a way to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In response, countless sidewalk cafes and street eateries blossomed — as has the pushback from advocates who cite noise, lack of parking space and homelessness as reasons why they should be dismantled. 

In fact, nearly 12,000 eateries are taking place in NYC’s Open Restaurant Program initiative and about 1,200 have roadway set ups, 4,300 on the sidewalks and just over 6,000 a combo, according to data from the city’s Department of Transportation.

“We're much more visible from the street,” Alejandro Fresquez, general manager of Santa Fe Restaurant in NYC, said in an interview. “It has been a huge game changer, even before pre-COVID, people who were looking for us couldn't find us.”

Now, the Big Apple is exploring making such dining options permanent.

“We're not necessarily talking about taking some of the current structures and making those permanent; rather it's creating a more standardized and sustainable program to transition into in the future,” Andrew Rigie, executive director of NYC Hospitality Alliance, told Yahoo Finance Live this week.

To do this, the city will need to edit some of the more restrictive language in its zoning laws.

“The roadway is a little bit new, so that's something that it's going to be a little bit different in different areas based on the size of the streets and how many restaurants are on that block,” Rigie added.

Rodents and ‘infighting’ between restaurants, residents

Food is served to guests at a restaurant in Manhattan, after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that proof of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination will be required for customers and staff at restaurants, gyms and other indoor businesses, in New York City, U.S., August 3, 2021. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
Food is served to guests at a restaurant in Manhattan, after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that proof of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination will be required for customers and staff at restaurants, gyms and other indoor businesses, in New York City, U.S., August 3, 2021. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

Amid the benefits, city and community leaders have fielded complaints about noisy outdoor customers and wide open setups soaking up badly needed NYC parking spaces.

“When you plunk down these structures in the middle of the road bed and on the sidewalks, it blocks the flow of the way these streets, neighborhoods were designed, especially the historic districts,” according to Leif Arntzen, a member of Cue Up NYC, an alliance of neighborhood organizations that opposes the city’s outdoor dining program.

“Our street hasn't been cleaned in over 18 months,” he added.

Even worse, Arntzen said he’s concerned about the “infestation from rats” and “infighting that's occurring on the blocks between residents and restaurant owners.”

City lawmakers and advocates argue the plan needs “greater” oversight before NYC makes it permanent in 2023. But other opponents want the program to end rather than be extended.

“I am opposed to this text amendment and call on the City Planning Commission to deny this measure,” Assemblymember Deborah J. Glick said in a statement.

“We must ensure that limitations which consider the public space use of our sidewalks and the interactions between restaurants and residents be upheld,” she added.

Meanwhile, some restaurants have permanently closed, but their outdoor structure still stands. In some cases, they’ve become a shared space not only for diners. but for rodents and the homeless.

“We have coordinated with our partners at Sanitation to remove 23 abandoned outdoor dining setups that were noted during routine Open Restaurants inspections,” the DOT said in a statement.

Despite the challenges, the city’s program has been a success for businesses like Santa Fe Restaurant, who reopened in March. They built an outdoor structure that has added more seating to its capacity.

“I've got about 35% more seating. People just like to sit outside, they like to eat outside. So it's provided a huge benefit to us,” Fresquez said.

The extra sales from those tables has allowed Fresquez to add more staffing in a tight labor market. But he also understands the impacts that outdoor dining has had on the rest of the non-dining city.

“For people who are running the restaurant, we are aware of those issues way more than anybody else,” Fresquez added.

“We're the ones that have to get the exterminators to get rid of the rats. We're the ones that have to chase away homeless people… I'm definitely empathetic and understand those issues 100%, but it's hard to weigh that against the survival of an industry,” he explained.

People walk as outdoor dining crowds outside of restaurants as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions are eased in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S., April 4, 2021.  REUTERS/Emily Elconin
People walk as outdoor dining crowds outside of restaurants as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions are eased in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S., April 4, 2021. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

Meanwhile, the outdoor trend is spreading to other locations. The town of San Anselmo in California, located 20 miles north of San Francisco, surveyed their residents, visitors and businesses to determine whether or not to make outdoor parklets a permanent downtown business feature. Out of 500 responses, more than 90% of residents want to see parklets long term, compared to 53% of business owners.

And in San Francisco, the city made those pandemic-era parklets for outdoor drinking and dining a permanent fixture. It’s part of the so-called “Shared Spaces” program that was put in place last year as a way to support businesses during the shutdown.

“We are providing another lifeline for local businesses to thrive and creating a clear path forward towards rebuilding our economy as San Francisco recovers from COVID-19,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement.

Under the new legislation, small businesses won’t have to pay permitting fees for two years. And the program also expanded to include public parklets for other uses like arts and entertainment.

While the Delta variant has affected dining behavior, 84% of adults say they favor allowing restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks, parking lots or streets permanently, according to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association.

Despite its drawbacks, the loss of outdoor dining could prove an insurmountable setback for some restaurants, Fresquez believes.

“If they decide to take away this from us, we're going to have to reassess,” he said. “We're hoping it can stay, it does bring its extra headaches, but the sales that we're seeing because of it, makes it worth it,” the restaurant owner said.

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