(Photo: Fuzheado via WikiCommons)

With the weather warming and restaurant owners becoming increasingly desperate for guidance on reopening, the City Council introduced new legislation Thursday requiring the Department of Transportation to identify streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces suitable for outdoor dining. During a virtual roundtable discussion Friday, council members discussed the measure with over 200 small business owners and concerned citizens.

“This crisis has really brought to the forefront how critical our small business community is to the fabric of our city,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of NYC Hospitality Alliance. “When we do reopen, for the space and revenue indoors, we are going to have to generate it outdoors.”

The bill, supported by 24 council members from all five boroughs, would create a temporary outdoor dining permit issued by the Department of Consumer Affairs that allows businesses to serve food and drink in an approved open space. It also calls on the Department of Health to create safety protocols for restaurants to observe social distancing rules and ensure sanitization. Small businesses would be able to apply for the outdoor dining permit at no cost. 

“We want to make this affordable and easy to implement,” said Council member Carlina Rivera, who represents nightlife destinations like the East Village, Murray Hill and the Lower East Side. Taking into account the financial distress business owners were already in, she assured them that the goal is to use materials and barriers that do not incur added costs. 

Having worked as a waitress, Rivera told roundtable attendees that she understood the difficulties restaurant workers are facing. A timely outdoor dining plan would not only make it easier for restauranteurs to make up for the loss of indoor dining space, and thus the partial loss of revenue, but would also allow them to plan accordingly for their business, Rivera said. 

Business owners “need to know how many potential seats they’re going to have, that’s going to determine how many employees they can hire back, and that determines how much of their paycheck protection program or loan is going to be converted into a grant,” Rigie said.

As for the specific implementations of outdoor dining, panelists on the Zoom call offered suggestions such as extending sidewalks, widening bike lanes for delivery people, putting removable chairs and furniture in parks and plazas, and making use of underutilized playground space and parking spots. 

“But there is no one-size-fits-all model,” said Council member Keith Powers, who represents neighborhoods in midtown and the Upper East Side. “Which is why people should bring forward their ideas.” He encouraged participants to bring their ideas to local community boards if they see a community space that can be creatively used as a dining area. 

On Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio said that the city was working intently to create a plan for reopening restaurants that follows a “safety-first, health-first approach.” Currently, restaurants and bars remain takeout and delivery only. But with the warmer weather, people have started to gather in groups on the street, sometimes less than six feet apart and without face masks, to chat and enjoy a meal or drink with one another. A city campaign launched May 22 encourages New Yorkers to “take out, don’t hang out” and increases police presence in bar-heavy areas.

As City Council members demanded a concrete plan to reopen restaurants, community members voiced concerns. One participant mentioned the potential spatial conflict outdoor dining may run into with other retail stores if they were right next to one another. Another member wondered if guidelines for street seats would still stand. Currently, the city’s transportation department requires businesses to submit applications and observe a set of guidelines that regulates street seats’ design and operating hours. There were also concerns about sidewalks that are not wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and street dining, and potential complaints from neighbors about noise and litter.

The hearing of the bill is scheduled for June 4. Although panelists appeared optimistic about its passing, they recognized that implementation would mean challenging technicalities, including the need to waive existing zoning regulations.

“I would like us to start from yes and make it happen, versus starting from no and talk about all the reasons why this is going to be tough,” Powers said. “So the industry itself should be part of the pitch in terms of how we can do this. We do rely on all of your expertise to make it work.”