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NYC’s Restaurant Reopening Could Include Outdoor Seating On Closed Streets

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While discussions are still in the very early stages, street closures for social distancing could also mean more outdoor restaurant seating

A view of Little Italy in Manhattan with a cobbled street in the middle, stores on either side, and people crossing the street
NYC’s restaurant reopening strategy may include seating on closed city streets
JJFarq/Shutterstock

Outdoor seating for restaurants on shuttered streets are being considered as a strategy for reopening restaurants in the coming months.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that he would close up to 100 miles of NYC streets so New Yorkers could safely practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For restaurants, the shuttered streets could mean more outdoor seating, a possibly vital tool for reopening many of the city’s tightly packed establishments.

The possibility of moving restaurant seating to the streets was a question raised by a WNBC reporter at the Mayor’s press conference on Monday, an idea that de Blasio called “interesting.” The administration has “thought about it” and “begun discussions,” he said, though he added that it’s too early to unveil any plans. He went on to say that “there could be advantages to having more of it [restaurant seating] be outdoors.”

NYC’s health commissioner Oxiris Barbot followed the mayor’s comments, adding that her team was thinking of ways to maximize the use of outdoor space while also keeping New Yorkers safe. When asked to clarify whether this encapsulated restaurants as well, a spokesperson for the health department said the agency is “actively deliberating a range of measures regarding social distancing and will share more information once it is ready.”

The tactic is something the New York City Hospitality Alliance — a group that represents thousands of restaurants in the city — has been advocating for as well. Executive director Andrew Rigie tells Eater that restaurant owners have reached out to him about the possibility of extending outdoor seating beyond the existing sidewalk seating that many NYC restaurants have. Rigie says his group is thinking of ways to “better utilize outdoor space to support restaurants, bars, and clubs.”

Recent studies have shown that people could be more susceptible to contracting the virus in enclosed spaces like restaurants, and for many establishments operating out of tiny spaces in NYC, operating at half capacity (or less) to accommodate that won’t likely be financially feasible.

Over at the City Council, members are debating new legislation — part of a large group of bills offering New Yorkers more protections during the pandemic — that would suspend the thousands of dollars in licensing fees restaurants have to pay for having sidewalk seating. While most restaurateurs say it won’t solve the massive financial crunch restaurants are facing right now, it could help ease the financial burden, especially as New Yorkers look to sit outdoors during warmer months.

For now though, much of the restaurant reopening strategy in NYC remains up in the air. Gov. Andrew Cuomo hinted over the weekend that workers in industries like manufacturing and construction may return to work once the current stay-at-home May 15 deadline ends, but restaurants haven’t been mentioned so far. What’s more, Cuomo is planning a phased reopening of the state, and it’s likely that hard-hit places like NYC — the city accounts for more than 12,000 of the 17,000 deaths statewide — will open later than other parts of the state.

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