Restaurants will soon be able to use sidewalks and parking spaces for outdoor dining, a development that cash-strapped restaurants have been lobbying for as the COVID-19 crisis keeps their dining rooms shuttered.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, less than a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a policy for outdoor dining to begin in phase two of the state’s reopening effort, debuted the city’s own plan to allow al fresco eating to expand throughout the city. At a Thursday City Council hearing about an outdoor dining bill introduced last week, the Department of Transportation’s commissioner Polly Trottenberg proposed simplifying the process to get a sidewalk cafe permit, and allowing restaurants to convert adjacent parking spaces into seating, unless there is a bus stop or fire hydrant there.
Unlike past sidewalk cafe permitting, restaurants will not need to receive approval from local community boards for these new outdoor dining spaces — a move aiming to offer outdoor dining as soon as possible.
“We want to get this up and going in time for phase 2, which is coming in a matter of weeks,” Trottenberg said. “We’ve heard the plea and from the industry that this not be a heavy-handed city process.”
The department is also deciding which commercial streets with lots of restaurants may be eligible to close and turn into dining rooms. Backyard seating is not part of this plan, as the city figures out what makes sense for health and walking through restaurants.
But for now, the plan aims to prioritize flexibility to capitalize on outdoor dining season. Restaurants on the same block could potentially combine efforts, and Department of Small Business Services is charged with making sure restaurants with fewer resources will be covered.
Enforcement, Trottenberg said, will be on a case-by-case basis, she said. “We would like to strive for a model where enforcement can be a light touch,” she said.
New York City is scheduled to begin the first phase of reopening on June 8, which means that outdoor dining could begin as early as June 22 — although de Blasio said it might not happen until early July. Restaurants ended their sit-down dining service in mid-March by state order as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on New York; the outbreak has killed nearly 17,000 in the city so far.
According to the city’s “Open Restaurants” plan, which the mayor announced during his daily press briefing on Thursday, the city will adopt regulations to allow for additional curbside seating, sidewalk seating, and seatings on closed streets, reiterating many of the points outlined by Trottenberg at the City Council hearing.
Restaurants located on closed streets will be able to extend their dining areas into those areas. New York announced earlier this summer that it would close 100 miles of city streets this summer to most vehicular traffic; the city is about halfway to that goal so far, NBC New York reports. Future open streets will come from “commercial strips” with a “high volume of restaurants,” per a slide presentation released by the mayor’s office.
For sidewalk seating, the mayor will streamline the permitting process with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Consumer Affairs. In light of the mayor’s announcement, the City Council didn’t say if it would still push the bill through. Eater has reached out for clarification.
The natural ventilation of outdoor spaces is believed to be safer than indoor spaces, which is why al fresco eating is beginning sooner. “There’s no way to know how much safer, but anywhere you’ve got more dilution, it’s going to reduce the risk of airborne or aerosol transmission,” Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory at the University of Oregon, told Eater in June.
State guidelines mandate that restaurants screen their staffers for COVID-19 symptoms before every outdoor service. De Blasio also announced that it would begin universal testing for the novel coronavirus as of June 3, even for asymptomatic individuals.