As summer approaches, San Francisco Mayor London Breed is forging ahead with a European-esque program to let COVID-19-battered restaurants expand onto sidewalks, parks, plazas, and streets, starting in mid-June. These developments, which follow similar measures in Berkeley and San Jose, are notable because they represent California’s level-headed accommodation of both suffering businesses and patrons itching for outdoor time. These developments are also significant because neither New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio nor Gov. Andrew Cuomo have issued any type of concrete guidance on this matter, nor do they show any signs of acting on these issues quickly.
The lack of leadership is particularly unfortunate as outdoor dining and drinking is already happening throughout the city, and it will continue. No rational policymaker should expect otherwise. Businesses are trying to stay alive by (legally) selling cocktails and food to go, and with limited capacity expected for the indoors, outdoor dining is an obvious way to more safely give businesses more of a fighting chance. And patrons who have been cooped up for the past three months are understandably enjoying their frozen margaritas outside those venues, while they’re still actually frozen.
Amid a rising consensus that being outside is more prudent than gathering indoors, New York restaurants need detailed regulations now to keep patrons and workers safe.
The City Council is thankfully moving ahead with a plan to allow the Department of Transportation to identify potential sites for outdoor dining, along with an expeditious permitting process, though it’s not clear that de Blasio wants to move as expeditiously. When the mayor was asked about the San Francisco developments at a press conference on May 27, he said outdoor dining was a “very encouraging possibility,” but appeared more committed to doubling down on the city’s so-called “take-out, don’t hang out” campaign, adding that would send police to “bar-heavy” areas with patrons congregating outside.
This approach of enforcement over guidance is frustrating, but not surprising. The state of New York has yet to publish its criteria for any type of sit-down dining — even though that service could begin within two weeks or so upstate, or by early July in the city. Scores of other municipalities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Los Angeles have issued detailed versions of those guidelines. That’s not to say things have gone well everywhere; bars in Dallas appeared to flout social distancing and capacity guidelines over the weekend, but at least there are detailed guidelines to enforce.
Outdoor dining will necessitate its own set of planning. How much paperwork will be required for the outdoor planning and how long will it take to go through? Restaurants deserve information that will let them plot out and cost out these issues now. And workers deserved detailed state and city safety protocols — well in advance — so they can decide whether to come back to work after unemployment benefits run out in July.
The urgency for expanded sidewalk and streetside dining is particularly acute for neighborhoods that exist in tight symbiotic relationships with local business and entertainment communities. Broadway shows, for example, are not currently running, and might not return until January of next year. That means myriad venues in Midtown West and Hell’s Kitchen are slated for an unimaginable drop in revenues as pre- and post-theater dining collapses.
Whether currently open or temporarily closed, those venues deserve to know they’ll soon have an extra tool in their toolbox. Expanding the dining room to occupy portions of the sidewalk or street would help ease the burden of those restrictions.
The New York Hospitality Alliance, a group that advocates for the city’s restaurant industry, initially called for outdoor dining to begin during the state’s so-called Phase 1 reopening, currently reserved for construction and manufacturing. The City Council legislation is more judicious, delaying outdoor table service when restaurants fully reopen during Phase 3 later this summer.
Ramping up restaurants to full-service too quickly would mean taking furloughed staffers off the stability of pandemic unemployment assistance, potentially resulting in lower pay and infections during a time when testing still isn’t easy to come by and when the city’s delayed contact tracing program is still getting up and running. San Francisco actually goes further than New York in this regard to ensure staffer and diner safety. As other California counties fully reopen their restaurants, the Bay Area is only permitting only outdoor dining on June 15 amid newly tightened guidelines for face coverings, pushing back the debut of indoor dining until mid-July.
To be sure, outdoor dining is not a perfect solution. Moving dining to the outdoors still might not be enough for some staffers. Anna Dunn, a waiter and co-founder of the Service Workers Coalition, a worker relief and advocacy organization, said many of its members wouldn’t be okay with returning to work either indoors or outdoors due to safety concerns both during service and commutes on public transit. Plus, some establishments could have a harder time accessing the space — one thinks of vendors deep inside malls or above-ground restaurants in Koreatown — and it’s not yet clear how this would impact the city’s street food vendors, many of whom are out-of-work and even more vulnerable because of their size and sometimes immigration status.
And sometimes rain, heat, or humidity makes dining out in New York just plain miserable.
Still, comprehensive guidelines, could go a long way. Strong leadership and clear rules for safety from government officials — requiring, for instance, that the back-and-forth talk about the menu be nixed in exchange for ordering by phone or counter-service only — could potentially help allay some worker concerns, especially in an industry with a nearly unequaled track record for taking advantage of its workers. Nationally, only construction comes close to food services in wage violation cases brought by the U.S. Department of Labor. Many staffers may choose to not return to service anyway, but for those who need to, there will be options.
If those concerns are addressed, outdoor summer dining could still be a very real and very beautiful thing. In years past, walking down a city street in the dead of summer often meant one of two things: witnessing a horrific traffic jam or wading through an awful street fair, with vendors hawking seemingly identical gyros and zeppoles across the cityscape.
What a joy it would be to reinvent New York’s streets as pedestrian-friendly backyards to our tiny apartments, giving overcrowded parks a break, and allowing local restaurants — many with cramped bar areas — to spread out their tables over the black asphalt. Perhaps patrons could even treat outdoors as a large, eclectic dining room. In Hell’s Kitchen, someone might start at the Colombian spot Empanada Mama to pick up a few spicy chicken arepas, hang a right and order a morir soñando at Zoralie, an evaporated milk-laced Dominican drink that tastes like a creamsicle, and then take a seat somewhere in the middle of 51st Street and enjoy it all under the leafy trees.
If this scene were anything like Nice, the city along France’s Cote d’Azur, it might even be hard to tell which tables belong to which restaurants. The true joy of European-style outdoor dining is the lack of walls. In a pedestrian plaza, diners at an ambitious restaurant with great rotisserie chicken sit right next to the folks eating cheap pub grub and drinking icy Carlsberg — though perhaps a few extra feet of space between everyone wouldn’t hurt. And while patrons might be excited about eating at their venue of choice, the open plan seating ensures they all actually feel like they’re dining together in the same city, instead of a divided one.
De Blasio’s travels to Rome suggest he’s well aware of this majestic style of dining out. And it appears this will actually happen at some point this summer. If only the mayor showed a bit more hustle and commitment to the process of making it happen safely.