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Manhattan Borough President Throws Support Behind Expanded Outdoor Dining Options

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Manhattan’s borough president suggests revamping the city’s ongoing Street Seats program to meet outdoor dining needs

People get drinks at bar around West Village on May 17, 2020 in New York City.
People gather outside White Oak Tavern in the West Village on May 17
Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer has become the latest public figure to advocate for increased outdoor dining options in the city as restaurants gear up for a summer season with heavy restrictions on operations due to the coronavirus crisis.

Brewer submitted a letter to NYC Department of Transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg on May 19 that called for a relaxation of the rules around the city’s current Street Seats program, which could help NYC restaurants attract more customers while remaining compliant with social distancing regulations

The Street Seats program currently allows for ground-floor businesses with street access to apply for permits to convert that space into public seating arrangements from March through December each year. The current application process takes about seven months and involves local community board approval and DOT approval on all parts of the project, including design drawings and maintenance and care plans.

Normally, businesses that are a part of the Street Seats program cannot “take orders nor exchange money” in the outdoor seating areas, the program’s rules stipulate.

In her letter, Brewer advocates for an expansion of the Street Seats program to allow businesses to accept orders and handle money in the designated outdoor areas. She also recommends that businesses should be allowed to construct the temporary street seating using “low-cost, temporary materials such as plastic delineators and planters.”

Brewer says that the Street Seats program modifications could be an alternative for businesses that don’t have sidewalk cafe permits or aren’t located on streets that have been shut down to cars as part of the city’s new Open Streets initiative.

The proposed changes to the program “would allow for a massive expansion of the Street Seats program, mirroring similar successes, as in Montreal, where one may find as many as five Street Seats per block,” Brewer writes.

In showing support, Brewer joins a number of local politicians who are pushing to make widespread outdoor dining a reality in the city this summer. NY City Council speaker Corey Johnson co-authored an op-ed with NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie earlier this week advocating to expand outdoor dining options for restaurants during the pandemic. Johnson noted that they were in the midst of reaching out to stakeholders, from community board leaders to restaurant owners, to get feedback on potential outdoor dining plans.

And at some restaurants and bars in the city, a diner-led form of outdoor dining is already happening: New Yorkers relaxed on sunny streets and in front of restaurants with their takeout orders over the past weekend.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has confirmed that his office is looking into the possibilities for outdoor dining, but no concrete plans have been laid out yet. In the meantime, de Blasio has threatened to shut down restaurants and bars that conduct any sort of dine-in business during the citywide shutdown.

See Brewer’s full letter below:

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