With the NYC restaurant industry facing financial disaster and signs that social distancing guidelines will continue throughout the summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that the city was open to the idea of allowing restaurants to use street space for seating, which could help them to reopen. “Outdoors is an interesting and promising possibility, to rely on more of the service being outdoors,” he said during a press conference Friday. “You still need precautions, but that’s an interesting option we’re looking at.”
Today during a city council meeting, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg revealed that the city was actively exploring the idea: “An interagency group is looking at how you’d mange it, permitting, and talking to the restaurant association,” she said.
Trottenberg told City Councilman Keith Powers, who represents parts of midtown Manhattan, “I agree your district might be a great place to start to test this out. It would be a wonderful way to help restaurants start to generate some business again and bring some socially distanced life back to our streets.”
This has already become a popular strategy in other cities both close to home and around the world: Connecticut restaurant owners are preparing to open their establishments’ outdoor seating on May 20th, with certain new social distancing measures in place (such as new limits on restaurant capacity and tables being spread out). Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has gone even further, and is planning to transform the city into a “vast open-air cafe” by turning over much of its public space in the center to restaurants and bars.
BREAKING: Calgary Council today unanimously supported a plan to support restaurants by allowing outdoor seating to temporarily spill out onto public sidewalks & streets at no cost (fees waived, process cut). Via @DruhFarrell
All cities, take note. https://t.co/H3rEKaXES4
— Brent Toderian (@BrentToderian) May 11, 2020
It’s also a strategy that has been endorsed by the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Executive director Andrew Rigie told Eater recently that restaurant owners have been reaching out to him about the possibility of extending outdoor seating beyond their existing sidewalk seating areas, and that his group is thinking of ways to “better utilize outdoor space to support restaurants, bars, and clubs.”
One of those owners is Henry Rinehart, the former proprietor of Henry’s on the Upper West Side, who has been advocating for more open streets in the city. As he outlined in an open letter, he has been working with Rigie and others in the restaurant industry to come up with a strategy for when the PAUSE plan ends, which as of now has been extended through at least early June. “When the weather changes, after 100 days of solitude, we are all going to be desperate to be together, but to be safe,” Rinehart told Streetsblog. “And safety requires space. There is available public space in front of every door.”
Another aspect that is important to this discussion is the matter of sidewalk cafe fees: there is currently a bill in the City Council which would suspend thousands of dollars in restaurant fees for those permits in 2020 and provide some financial relief for owners. But restaurants would still have to go through the application process, which involves approval from local community boards and could hold up the entire process.
Health experts agree that it is far easier and safer to socially distance outside than inside enclosed spaces; outdoor seating can create a sense of community on our streets, which some believe is especially important right now: “We need creative solutions, and I think things like closing down streets and having some dispersed [seating] from restaurants is a nice creative solution,” Eleanor Murray, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, told The Hill. “We can’t continue this lockdown indefinitely. It’s just not going to be psychologically or economically feasible.”
De Blasio previously noted that even if such a bill went through, there would be “inevitable restrictions” including limiting the number of people allowed inside establishments as well as requirements about “face coverings” and “gloves.”
(Additional reporting by Stephen Nessen)