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Without a Restaurant Reopening Plan, Mayor Doubles Down on Policing De Facto Outdoor Bars

The city has upped enforcement across nine “bar-heavy” neighborhoods

Groups of people gather outside of a bar’s takeout window on a street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Groups of people gather outside of a bar’s takeout window on a street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in May
Gary He/Eater
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

Neither state-level nor city-level offices have yet to release official guidelines for restaurant and bar owners on how they should plan for reopening — even as the majority of New York has already started opening back up and owners and other city officials await a clear, forward-looking plan as more customers crowd streets in warm weather.

But NYC is heightening enforcement of its existing rules, which only allow takeout and delivery. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office announced last week that the Office of the Sheriff has increased its presence across nine “bar-heavy” neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx to enforce a new social distancing campaign for dining, released ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

The new public campaign, dubbed “take out, don’t hang out,” focuses on nine neighborhoods that the city deemed “bar-heavy”: the Upper East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, the East Village, the West Village, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Long Island City, Astoria, and City Island in the Bronx.

The announcement followed days of warm weather where many locals hung out outside with takeout beverages, sometimes breaking social distancing rules.

“We did not want to see people try and create de facto outdoor seating or de facto parties,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the campaign at a press conference on May 22. “In places where we’ve had some problems, you will see the presence of the police department and other agencies just going around to bars and restaurants, checking in on any place we had a problem” during the previous warm weather weekend.

On May 24, NYC’s office of nightlife, which represents more than 25,000 restaurants, bars, and clubs in the city, released a set of physical distancing guidelines for restaurants and bars doing takeout and delivery programs. According to the guidelines, employees must wear face masks unless they are unable due to a medical condition, and employers must provide the coverings. The guidelines also suggested ways to encourage customers to wear face masks, including requiring wearing masks on the shop’s premises.

The city’s slow response to developing plans to help guide small businesses in the reopening has been frustrating for owners who feel left in the dark, the New York Post reports. Restaurateurs and other city officials have urgently called for an expanded outdoor dining plan to be put in place this summer, including City Council speaker Corey Johnson and Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer.

Other states like California released restaurant reopening guidelines ahead of the state’s county-by-county reopening, with restrictions such as no tableside food preparation and directing diners to box up their own takeout. San Francisco just announced an outdoor dining plan to support restaurants and bars serving customers outside, and in nearby Connecticut, restaurants are allowed to do outdoor dining.

But even with restaurant reopening guidelines in place, not everyone follows the rules — driving fears of a second wave of infections and another subsequent shutdown. Large crowds gathered at a pool party hosted by a popular Houston nightclub during the reopening weekend for bars in Texas, clearly flouting the state’s 25 percent capacity restriction on bars, Eater Houston reports. One of Dallas’s busy bar districts was similarly packed on the reopening weekend.

During a press conference on Wednesday, May 27, de Blasio reiterated that outdoor dining was a “very encouraging possibility,” but it wouldn’t be part of the first phase of reopening. There’s still “lots to figure out” with the initiative regarding social distancing, face coverings, and limited capacity measures, he said.

When asked why measures like outdoor dining weren’t more expedited given how restaurants and bars are struggling to survive, de Blasio said that NYC was working under “the toughest conditions,” including the city’s dense population, with fighting COVID-19.

The current open streets plan — which closes miles of city streets to cars — wouldn’t have made sense without more police to help enforce it, he said.

As the city inches closer to phase one of reopening, low-contact industries like manufacturing and construction will be allowed to restart first. The mayor’s office projects that the first phase of reopening will begin in the first or second week of June, based on seven daily health-safety metrics that the city has to achieve.