The NYC Department of Transportation is significantly beefing up the safety requirements for year-round outdoor dining setups — one of the few lifelines that restaurants have been relying on to generate revenue through the pandemic — as the city heads into the winter months.
The new regulations, which were posted to the DOT’s website on November 13, require restaurants to retrofit their curbside outdoor dining setups with more safety features including heavy filler material, more reflective strips, and brightly-colored snow sticks. The protective wooden barriers that outline outdoor dining setups constructed in the road now have to be “completely filled” with sand or soil, according to the DOT. The plywood barriers are now required to include interior walls and a bottom to hold the filler material.
A “majority” of NYC restaurants will also be required to add plastic, water-filled barriers in front of their roadway barriers that face traffic, the DOT guidelines state. The restaurants where this extra layer of protection will be required are identified based on street crash rates and traffic volume, according to the DOT, and they will be notified separately if the new requirement applies to their setup.
On top of making the curbside dining pods sturdier, owners will likely also have to make them more moveable. In the event of a snowstorm in which 12 inches or more is forecasted to fall, restaurateurs are required to move or consolidate the curbside setups “to have as small a footprint as possible along the curb,” the guidelines state. If that isn’t possible, owners are expected to do what they can to minimize potential damage during the city’s snow removal operations.
Separately, during an active snow alert in the city, restaurants are required to close down curbside dining areas, remove any electrical heaters that have been set up inside the structure, and remove overhead coverings if possible, according to the DOT. If the overhead coverings can’t be removed, restaurateurs are expected to regularly remove snow as it collects.
The DOT requires that the extra safety measures, including filling roadway barriers completely with soil or sand, must be implemented by December 15. According to the site guidelines, sandbags, reflector tape, snow sticks, and plastic barriers will be available to restaurants for free. Pickup and distribution details will be sent by email to participating restaurants, the site states.
“This is being done now since the program is no longer temporary and with winter weather approaching, with snow pushing against barricades and more wear and tear, the structures need to be stronger,” a DOT spokesperson tells Eater. “This also takes into account slippery roads and snow removal operations.”
Still, the details about how to access the materials are ambiguous, restaurateurs say, and operators are now grappling with how to retrofit their outdoor setups to remain compliant in light of the sudden new requirements.
In South Brooklyn, a bar owner who requested anonymity to speak freely says that he is now trying to figure out how to redo his curbside barrier, constructed with four thick layers of wooden pallets, to now fit sand or soil inside.
“Filling the outdoor enclosures with sand or soil is going to be an insane nightmare for so many people including myself who already have a built out structure that can’t really be sealed with sand,” the bar owner says. “Also, they want us to be able to move it if it snows?”
Others feel that it is one more confusing set of regulations to follow, on top of a new 10 p.m. curfew and an indefinite holding pattern on the state of indoor dining in the city. In the West Village, Extra Virgin owner Michele Gaton’s roadway barriers are already filled with soil to double as planter boxes, she says, but she voiced concern about the possibility of further regulations, including potentially having to install plastic water-filled barriers in front of her curbside dining setup.
“I’m not understanding how they are coming up with these [restrictions],” Gaton says of the new barrier regulations, the just-installed curfew, and the fact that there are no guidelines in place for when indoor dining capacity will expand. “Who came up with these ideas? How? We’d all feel better if we knew that we were contributing to a safer New York. But right now we are just getting spanked, hard.”
Previously, when outdoor dining was first allowed over the summer, many restaurateurs spent thousands of dollars building out their curbside outdoor setups only to pour more money into re-constructing them to fit the DOT’s changing guidelines. Now, many restaurants will again have to change the structures to fit the new requirements.
“These measures are going in place as colder weather arrives because we need commonsense measures to keep outdoor dining safe for customers, service staff and everyone on our streets and sidewalks,” the DOT spokesperson says.
But some operators say that adding the extra safety measures at the same time that the city is considering whether or not to restrict dining allowances further is especially difficult. “The timing on this is just crazily tone deaf and the rules are unduly strict,” the bar owner adds.
Update, Tuesday, November 17, 12:36: This story has been updated with comments from a DOT spokesperson.