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City Council Introduces Outdoor Dining Bill Following Complaints of Mayor’s Sloth Pace

With no guidelines from the mayor or the governor, the City Council is stepping in to speed up the process

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

With ever-growing calls to urgently address the need for outdoor dining in New York City, the City Council introduced new legislation Thursday that will require the city’s transportation department to identify streets, sidewalks, plazas, and other open spaces that would be suitable for restaurants to set up shop outside.

In addition, the legislation guarantees that restaurants located in an area zoned for sidewalk cafes will receive a temporary sidewalk license — at no cost — to set up tables outside the restaurant. Other provisions of the new bill call on the city’s Department of Health to create safety protocols, so restaurants can ensure social distancing and cleanliness outside.

Once the Department of Transportation has identified safe areas for outdoor dining, restaurants and bars would be required to submit an application to the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs to start operating outside. While the details of this application process haven’t been revealed yet, the NYC Hospitality Alliance — which represents thousands of restaurants across the city and helped inform the bill — says the process will be “quick.”

For restaurants located adjacent to private parking lots, owners will be allowed to set up tables and chairs in these lots, as long as they have permission from the landlord. The legislation is only temporary, however, with the provisions for outdoor dining set to expire on October 31 this year, or when the social distancing requirements are eliminated.

The bill was introduced by was City Council speaker Corey Johnson and council member Antonio Reynoso, who represents parts of Bushwick, Ridgewood, and Williamsburg. They say that the need for outdoor dining legislation is urgent as more New Yorkers are stepping out and hanging outside bars and restaurants every weekend — while owners still have no clear direction on how to prepare for reopening their businesses.

Instead, the city has upped enforcement in nine “bar-heavy” areas across the city, including much of lower Manhattan, to further police takeout and delivery programs. The action could have been unnecessary if clear guidelines were proactively set forth earlier, Johnson said in a press conference addressing the new legislation. And other city departments, like the Department of Consumer Affairs, could be involved in ensuring compliance instead. “I don’t think the first reaction needs to be using police officers for outdoor spaces,” Johnson said.

“A failed policy and poor design is what leads to the need for enforcement,” Reynoso added. He noted that using the police to enforce social distancing measures earlier on during the pandemic was “a disaster.”

The bill already has the backing of nearly a dozen other council members, the support of restaurant groups like the NYS Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association, and the backing of restaurant owners like Melba Wilson of Harlem’s Melba Restaurant, and William Padilla, who owns Mamajuana Cafe in the Schuylerville, in the Bronx.

“We need to think big and we need to think out-of-the-box,” says Padilla in a statement. “Outdoor space is going to be vital as restaurants begin reopening and timing is everything.”

While there’s been a strong push from the City Council and restaurants owners to address outdoor dining as restaurants look to reopen in the next month or so, both Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have largely remained mum on specific for the topic. Both have acknowledged the need for it, but neither has presented a concrete proposal or guidelines for how the restaurant industry might go about it.

In the press conference, Johnson acknowledged that members of City Council are “concerned” with the slow pace of de Blasio’s administration to act on outdoor dining or release a wider set of guidelines addressing how restaurants should prepare to reopen. With the new legislation, “we want to start the conversation and force their hand,” Johnson said. “We need to push the administration appropriately and thoughtfully.”

The silence is perhaps more concerning for restaurant owners in the city who have seen other major cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia address the issue with more speed. While the city has been working with a variety of groups — including the Hospitality Alliance — to identify areas that might be suitable for outdoor dining, the legislation might force the city to take quicker action.

Earlier at the mayor’s morning press briefing, de Blasio said that he “has not seen the legislation” that City Council is proposing on outdoor dining. He restated that any such plan would not be part of the city’s first phase of reopening, which only allows for low-contact industries like construction and manufacturing to restart. The city is expected to move into phase one of reopening in the first or second week of June.

Johnson confirmed that the City Council does not expect to see the legislation applied to phase one of reopening, but rather sees introducing the bill now as a proactive measure to prepare for when the city enters phase three of reopening, which will allow for restaurants to return to some form of dining service.

“I still believe [the proposed outdoor dining legislation] will be part of phase three,” Johnson said at the City Council’s press conference. “That’s the way I’m thinking about this.” He expects the bill to move towards becoming approved legislation in an “expedited way,” similar to how a recent spate of COVID-19 small business support bills — including a food delivery fee cap — were passed. That process, from introduction to passing into law, was completed within weeks, Johnson says.