NYC restaurants may get some reprieve in the form of relaxed enforcement for city code-violations and returned fines that they paid during the coronavirus pandemic. Two Bronx City Council members, Mark Gjonaj and Vanessa Gibson, introduced two bills yesterday that are looking to provide both short- and long-term relief for small businesses in the city. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the legislation.
The first of the two bills, Intro. 2234 looks to suspend certain low-level penalties during the pandemic and return some fines that have already been paid since the COVID-19-related emergency declaration on March 12, 2020. The penalties pertain to violations of city code and fines issued by a variety of city agencies like the health, sanitation, transportation, consumer affairs, and buildings departments, among others.
For instance, the city’s health department, which oversees restaurants, collected $8.4 million in fines last year between July and October, according to the WSJ. The Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees licensing issues, took in $2.9 million in fines during that same time period. Together, these two agencies are responsible for the bulk of fine collection from small businesses, according to the WSJ.
It’s not yet clear how much of the fines will be returned, but Intro 2234 covers the period starting from March 12, 2020, until this current emergency period ends. Mayoral spokesperson Mitch Schwartz told the WSJ that the de Blasio administration was going to review the bills, but wanted to ensure that more egregious violations could still be fined, like price gouging.
The other bill, Intro 2233, aims to make longer-term changes by amending how 183 different city codes that govern small businesses, including restaurants, are enforced. The goal of the bill is to foster dialogue between city agencies and businesses, instead of financial punitive action, with fines left as a last resort.
At present, the city’s restaurants have to pay fines of $200 or more for issues like not displaying a permit for a canopy, not maintaining the original label of a food product to show that it doesn’t have more than half a gram of trans fat per serving, and not properly displaying the smoke-free air policy, among several other codes. For violations that don’t pose an immediate health risk to diners or restaurant staffers, the bill would then ensure that restaurants receive a warning and are given time — 30 days for certain offenses — to fix the issues before facing fines. The fines issued for several of these code violations during the pandemic would be returned if the first of the two bills passes.
The NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of restaurants in the city, supports both bills, but wants the city to go further by reducing fine amounts overall and by increasing education efforts. The Alliance pointed to some of the efforts made during the pandemic, such as the city’s transportation department working with some restaurants to fix their outdoor structures instead of levying fines, as a model of how the city and small businesses could work together.
The Council’s bills have a handful of co-sponsors so far, but perhaps, most notably, both pieces of legislation have the backing of Council speaker Corey Johnson, which could indicate broader support in the Council as the legislation moves forward. It’s not yet clear when these bills will come up for a vote before the Council, but Eater will continue to monitor the development of this legislation.