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NYC Restaurants Pull Out Patio Seating Early, Flouting Rules as Business Struggles

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“I need every dollar I can get,” one owner says

A boarded up restaurant with tables and chairs set up outside on the sidewalk and customers sitting and drinking in front of the restaurant.
Tables set up outside White Horse Tavern
Robert Sietsema/Eater
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

Outdoor dining may not officially be allowed in NYC until phase two of reopening — which is still weeks away — but that hasn’t stopped many restaurants and bars in lower Manhattan from leapfrogging the rules and setting out seating for customers ahead of time.

Many restaurant owners and managers are well aware that letting diners sit and eat and drink outside is illegal for now, they say, but they feel it is worth it to provide the service to customers and help drum up more sales. The restaurants follow current social distancing and health safety protocols inside the shops, including requiring customers to wear masks while ordering and to remain six feet apart from staff and each other, but the approach is different once customers are on the sidewalk.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” says a restaurant owner in Little Italy who requested anonymity to speak openly. But the shop is in a precarious financial position, and putting out seats is a way to signal to passersby that the restaurant is open and serving food.

“I need every dollar I can get,” the owner says. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Three restaurant owners and managers who spoke to Eater say that they initially set out chairs, and in some cases tables, because they felt it was necessary to offer customers a place to sit aside from the curb while quickly eating a slice of pizza, or having a drink and waiting to pick up to-go orders.

“Do you know how hard it is to eat a pie sitting down?” the Little Italy restaurateur says. “And sitting outside on the curb, it’s kind of disgusting.”

With outdoor seating, the restaurateur follows similar guidelines to what will be in place once outdoor dining legally starts in the city: Customers are required to wear masks when communicating with staff, and employees don’t serve customers once they are seated outside. Customers have to clean up after themselves, and chairs remain six feet apart from each other.

Franco Noriega of West Village Peruvian restaurant Baby Brasa says that he put out tables and chairs because customers often wait up to 25 or 30 minutes for their order, and they were starting to find de facto seats on neighbors’ private stoops.

Now that the tables and chairs are out, Noriega has been able to redirect customers away from private residential steps, and he hasn’t had trouble with diners lingering after receiving food, he says. Once customers get their orders, staffers direct them towards a nearby park for more seating.

Customers at other restaurants aren’t so quick to leave. The general manager at a West Village restaurant, who requested anonymity to speak freely, started putting out chairs for customers at the request of the chef so that diners had a place to sit while waiting for takeout orders. But what started as a place to rest quickly progressed into customers sitting in the chairs for hours, eating pastries and drinking cocktails and wine.

Even after the seating was clearly being misused, the manager decided to keep the chairs out — although he isn’t setting up tables until legally allowed to do so, and no staffers are serving diners outside. The seating acts as a marketing prop to let others know that the restaurant is open, the manager says. He’ll also regularly have customers who may have just stopped by for a drink decide to pay for a to-go dinner after spending time outside of the restaurant.

“Now I have sold them a $20 bottle of wine and $100 for dinner,” the manager says. “Right now, $100 is a big difference.”

If customers ask whether they are allowed to sit in the chairs once they’ve picked up their food and wine, the manager dodges the question and tries not to give a definitive response. “What they do out on the sidewalk is between them and the city,” the manager says.

Diners stand at high tables and sit in chairs outside White Horse Tavern, with boarded up windows
White Horse Tavern’s outdoor seating
Robert Sietsema/Eater

Some restaurants are far more explicit in flaunting the rules and setting up outdoor dining operations. Historic Greenwich Village bar White Horse Tavern announced on Instagram over the weekend that the business was back and the patio was open for customers. Multiple clusters of tables and chairs were set up in front of the restaurant, implicitly encouraging customers to purchase drinks at the to-go bar and linger out front. The bar did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its patio setup.

Earlier in May, Mayor Bill de Blasio denounced the growing crowds of New Yorkers hanging out in front of restaurants and bars, when the weather warmed up and people began to feel more comfortable spending time outside.

“I’m not comfortable at all with people congregating outside bars,” de Blasio said at the time. “If you start to form groups of people and then you know, two, three, five, and then it becomes six, it becomes 10, it becomes 15 — that violates what we’re saying about social distancing. That puts lives in danger.”

New reported COVID-19 cases continued to decline sharply throughout the month. According to data from the NYC Health Department, there were 177 new novel coronavirus cases reported on June 6, as compared to over 1,000 new cases being reported nearly every day in early May. Some public health experts are concerned that the widespread protests against racism and police brutality taking place across the city may have an effect on the virus’s spread due to thousands of people marching together in close quarters, but there has not yet been a large uptick in cases in the city. Aside from protest crowds, up to 400,000 people headed back to work on June 8 as NYC began phase one of the city’s reopening.

In an early effort to curb makeshift outdoor dining spots, the city launched a “take out don’t hang out” public awareness campaign ahead of the Memorial Day weekend. The mayor’s office also announced that NYC’s Office of the Sheriff would be upping enforcement in nine bar-heavy neighborhoods across the city.

The restaurants, however, haven’t been ticketed over the outdoor seating yet. Police officers have stopped by the premises and are aware of the seating arrangements, restaurateurs tell Eater, but none of the three owners and managers have been threatened with fines or any other form of enforcement.

The police “understand” the position that small business owners are in, the Little Italy restaurateur says. He feels that they are reticent to hand out tickets due to the financial strain that everyone is facing amid the pandemic. And at his restaurant, they are customers too. “A detective came by and ate a sandwich,” he says.

The NYPD press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

As outdoor seating provides a service to customers and encourages more sales at a time when businesses are desperate, none of the restaurants that spoke with Eater indicated that they would change course before outdoor dining is legally allowed in the city.

“If people sit around, it creates a sense of life and vitality,” the West Village general manager says. “It attracts people to look at the restaurant.”