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Everything to Know About NYC’s Outdoor Dining Plan

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Outdoor dining is officially underway today. Here are the salient features from the city’s plan

A top-down view of a street with some tables and chairs set up on the road
Outdoor seating at Chinatown’s Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Gary He/Eater

After weeks of calls from restaurant owners for some clarity on what outdoor dining will look like in NYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally offered some details at a press conference last week. Over the weekend, restaurant owners scrambled to prepare for the start today, and many complained about the delayed announcement. Yet, many are celebrating at least some form of return to normalcy, even if it might take restaurants some time getting used to.

Still, the rules are expansive, and the city and state have issued different guidelines over the past few weeks that could lead to confusion. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that there’s no concrete plan for enforcement, saying the city will “trust” restaurants and diners to follow safety protocols, which will likely add to the uncertainty in the coming weeks. Texas, Florida, and other states that have been quicker to reopen bars and restaurants have seen a surge in infections and re-closings as of late.

Here, Eater is outlining all the outdoor dining guidelines in one place.

How can restaurants apply for outdoor dining?

For establishments that already have outdoor dining permits, it will largely be business as usual with the implementation of new safety protocols like keeping tables six-feet apart. For others, the city has created an online application that will allow places to set up tables and chairs on certain streets and sidewalks. The approval process is instantaneous, according to the city. More outdoor dining spaces could open next month, when the city closes more streets to traffic as part of an ongoing effort to close 100 miles in the city to allow for social distancing.

Do restaurant owners need to provide documentation to sign up online?

Yes. Aside from providing the name of the establishment, an address, and a contact number, the city also wants to know the establishment’s permit number, dimensions of the outdoor seating area, and State Liquor Authority information for places that serve alcohol. Overall though, the requested information seems pretty straightforward for owners to get together.

What do diners need to be aware of?

Unless seated, diners are required to have some type of face covering on when trying to get a table or when they are waiting to be seated. New York state guidelines encourage patrons to keep their masks on at tables while not actively eating or drinking, but anecdotal observations suggest few will do so.

Restaurants may notify diners, when appropriate, that they might have been exposed to COVID-19. The city’s “Test and Trace Corps” will attempt to identify anyone exposed, but the New York Times reported today that the program isn’t going well, with tracers often “unable to locate infected people or gather information from them.”

While outdoor dining is a safer alternative to eating inside, the safety of people eating outside is still contingent on diners and restaurants enforcing social distancing requirements and other safety protocol.

Can restaurants keep normal hours or are there set times for outdoor dining?

The city has established strict hours for outdoor service across the five boroughs. Restaurants can open no earlier than 8 a.m. (or 10 a.m. on Sundays) and stay open no later than 11 p.m.

What areas of a restaurant qualify as “outdoors?”

Front yards, side yards, read yards, courtyards, balconies, terraces, open air rooftop spaces, private parking lots, and open air boats. For those spaces, restaurants do not need to seek additional approval from the transportation department. They do, however, need to apply online for seating on sidewalks (if they don’t already have a permit), curbside, and on streets closed off to traffic. For plazas, restaurants have been asked to work with their local business improvement districts (BID) to create seating opportunities there. What’s more, restaurants can have more than one type of outdoor space open for dining at the same time, according to the city.

How long will this program last?

Street seating will continue until September 8, the day after Labor Day, while sidewalk seating will stretch through the end of October.

Can establishments extend seating areas into neighboring properties if there’s insufficient space?

No. Venues must use the property in front of their own establishments, and cannot extend their seating to neighboring venues, even with the permission of those businesses. The city notes, however, “that additional space opportunities may become available” over the next few weeks.

What happens if a venue is in a mall or located on the second floor or higher?

A requirement for participating in the program is that a bar or restaurant must have “business frontage on the ground floor,” per the city. That rule appears to exclude venues in malls and elsewhere, and could potentially disadvantage venues in Koreatown, Flushing, and any other area where vertical dining is more common.

Does the outdoor program conflict with street vendor spaces?

Street vendors are still permitted to use the curb lane or sidewalk, “as long as they comply with all applicable vending laws and rules.” But the city does not offer explicit guidance or clarity if there’s a dispute between a vendor and a restaurant over a particular sidewalk space.

What about bike lanes and alternate side parking?

Restaurants can still apply for roadway seating on open streets if there’s a bike lane. The catch is that the outdoor seating can’t block the lane, and servers might have to dodge careening cyclists as they ferry martinis into the middle of the street.

Venues can use alternate side parking spaces for dining area. Given that alternate side regulations are currently suspended — meaning drivers can park on either side of the street and don’t have to move them — that will likely create a shortage of space for restaurant seating on non-open streets for at least the next week.