A bad day in New York may usually be better than a good day anywhere else, but with the global pandemic hitting NYC so hard, taking lessons from other cities is paramount when considering recovery — including with the eventual return of restaurants.
Cities around the world have adopted strategies and policies that are gaining traction and popularity as ways to help restaurants survive while still curbing the spread of COVID-19. Some of the strategies, like opening up the streets to outdoor dining, are already in discussion in New York, while others — such as mini-parks in place of street parking — are things that already exist in NYC but could be expanded in light of the virus.
No city has as many confirmed novel coronavirus cases as New York, so it’s unlikely that we can mimic the opening timelines of anywhere else in the country. Still, these are some methods that could be worth copying to help the restaurant and bar industry.
Turn the streets into outdoor dining
One of the most popular ideas thus far is the concept of turning closed streets into outdoor cafes. European cities like Rome are used to this way of life already, and in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, officials have offered restaurants and cafes public space for seating specifically because of the crisis. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said that this idea is in discussion, a method that’s gained traction following mounting evidence that contracting COVID-19 is less likely while outdoors.
Offer temporary outdoor dining permits for no cost
Also on the note of expanding outdoor dining space, some governments are giving out outdoor dining permits more freely. Brookhaven, which is north of Atlanta, started offering a temporary permit for restaurants to use spaces that otherwise wouldn’t be allowed for outdoor seating, such as parking lots. It lasts for 90 days and costs nothing, and Brookhaven’s mayor’s office is promising a 48-hour timeline on processing requests.
While New York restaurants wouldn’t benefit as much from a parking lot rule, the city and state could theoretically offer its outdoor dining permits more freely during the pandemic. There is currently a bill in New York’s City Council suspending thousands of dollars in sidewalk cafe fees for restaurants for 2020, but provisions to actually make it easier to get the permit are not a part of it. Currently, restaurants must go through an application process that involves approval from local community boards, which can be lengthy.
Add more “parklets” in lieu of street parking in front of restaurants
In order to encourage social distancing, one restaurant in Dallas has set up a “parklet,” a mini-park where one or two street parking spots in front of the storefront are replaced by benches and plants. More may be coming in Dallas, too, as Texas reopens its restaurants. It’s modeled after an urban planning tool that’s been popular in cities to transform underused open space for years — including in New York.
For some time now, New York has had a program called “Street Seats,” where the Department of Transportation partners with businesses to put a mini-park in street parking space outside their storefronts. The businesses apply to install one and agree to maintain the space, and with approval from community boards, the city reimburses them for the costs. They’ve been used as way for al fresco dining in neighborhoods.
A DOT spokesperson tells Eater that Street Seats will still happen this year and “will potentially play an important role” in the recovery efforts — as will other public space initiatives such as “Weekend Walks,” where commercial streets close to traffic to highlight small businesses. The timeline is still changing in tandem with the latest COVID-19 health guidelines, the spokesperson says, and Weekend Walks are canceled through at least June.
The application process for Street Seats’s 2020 season ended at the end of January. But even if the mini-parks can’t return right now, the pandemic seems like an ideal opportunity to expand the program this summer — especially considering so many areas in the city lack existing green space. Having extra dining space, or even simply a place to make the street look more pleasant to wait for takeout, could be a small but positive boost.
Public funding to reopen restaurants by paying them to feed vulnerable populations
Many restaurants have stayed open by cooking meals for hospital workers or vulnerable seniors, and in addition to being a valuable service for those in need, the work also acts as a way to keep some staffers employed and to bring in some revenue to help with costs such as utilities. In California, public money is going toward restaurants that stay open to feed high-risk seniors. And in Portland, public money funds a program where restaurants feed people living at homeless shelters. Nearly two dozen restaurants there are participating, with some saying that it’s helping them almost break even.
In New York, though, most of the businesses have relied on private donations or grants to do the work. Relying on charity money leads to some issues: The higher-profile, more visible restaurants tend to get more money, as do businesses where the clientele are already wealthy. Having a more organized, public effort could eliminate some of the systemic gaps; in Portland, many of the partner restaurants are women- and minority-owned. It’s an idea that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has already touted as an option, though hasn’t been much movement beyond that.
Public funding for vouchers to spend at restaurants
Taiwan is one of the few places that’s been able to avoid mass shutdowns to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the island’s economy has still taken a bit of a hit. As a way to encourage spending at hard-hit industries, Taiwan’s government offered vouchers to its residents — spending the equivalent of $2 billion on the coupons. Some of them can only be spent on food at restaurants and the famed night markets, while others target places like shopping malls. They’re industries that typically draw tourists, and the logic is that domestic spending will increase with a boost from the government. Similarly, Lithuania is doing a voucher program for restaurant spending. Instead of giving them to all residents, the public money goes to health workers.
Targeted spending like this may end up being particularly necessary once restaurants can safely reopen, whenever that happens. How soon diners will return to previous spending habits is a big uncertainty, considering both economic issues and health fears, and government-funded coupons could be a way to help encourage dining out again.
Cap fees from delivery platforms
San Francisco, Seattle, and D.C. have all made moves to cap the fees that delivery platforms can charge restaurants at 15 percent. As restaurants rely on delivery and takeout as a lifeline, the commissions that platforms such as Grubhub charge have come under increased scrutiny. During the crisis, Grubhub has in some cases even continued to charge fees that it previously agreed to waive, such as for phone calls that don’t result in orders.
New York’s City Council has proposed a 10 percent cap on such fees, though it has yet to be finalized. Meanwhile, restaurants are trying to pivot to hiring their own delivery people and using their own platforms — but for many businesses, the delivery platforms are too big to compete with on a large scale.
Collect information in a more organized fashion from restaurants and consumers
There hasn’t been much publicly available raw data or numbers surrounding the economic impact of the restaurant industry, such as exactly how many businesses closed temporarily due to the shutdown of dining rooms. It’s hard thing to track, but other cities are making some attempts to do so.
The city of Seattle built an interactive tool to help residents figure out which restaurants are still open for takeout and delivery, a way to encourage spending at small businesses. Though many independent sources have attempted to track data like this, the city’s version offers a centralized look at the dining landscape. Over in Atlanta, where businesses can already reopen under state orders, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s office is surveying residents about business reopenings, including restaurants. Such a move from a public office here could offer insight into how restaurants can best respond to locals.