Drivers or pedestrians who passed by Second Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets couldn’t help but notice the balloons where cars used to park. “Welcome back to outdoor dining,” read a colorful sign belonging to Barnacho, a Mexican restaurant. Behind the balloons, there were six tables on the asphalt where customers will be seated, in addition to seven tables occupying the sidewalk. Welcome to phase two of New York’s reopening.

“This is our way to say how thankful we are just for staying alive,” said Jennifer Porto, a waitress at the restaurant. She knows several small business owners who had to shut down and fire their staff during the city’s lockdown. “And the balloons are here to make sure everyone sees us.” At 12:30 pm, only two of the 13 tables were occupied, but this was to be expected  on the first Monday back, said Jennifer. Indeed, by nightfall, neighborhoods like the East Village were thronging with al fresco eaters. 

New York City has allowedrestaurants and bars to resume on-site dining with outside seating only, following the Open Restaurants program’s rules requiring tables to be six feet apart and room for pedestrians to walk. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the guidelines last week, along with an application for establishments to self-certify for sidewalk and roadway seating.

Over 3,000 restaurants have been certified for outdoor dining, Mayor de Blasio said Monday. Though the online application worked smoothly for the restaurants that opened in midtown yesterday, lunchers were being shy.  The majority of restaurants had only one or two tables with guests. In general, clients still preferred the pickup or delivery options. Mario da Silva, owner of the Italian restaurant Ceci Ceci, at 46th Street, was serving only one person at 1pm. “He’s a faithful customer, he always comes to get a beer at this time,” said Silva.

According to him, his business was seriously affected because most of his guests are either employees who worked at nearby companies or tourists that visited the neighborhood because of its theaters. Nevertheless, Silva is happy about seeing his routine going back to what it used to be—even with baby steps. “I missed the friends I got to know from the street, the ones who pass by and stop to eat a little something and talk.” Even the UPS delivery person who arrived with a package stayed to chat for a while.

Silva says the application to get the roadway seating permit was easy. He uploaded documents, answered a Department of Transportation representative’s questions over the phone and got the document on the same day. None of his neighbors did the same, though. He’s the only one who decided to put his tables and chairs under the open sky. “Great, no competition,” said Silva, laughing.

Second Avenue’s Five Napkin Burger hit the jackpot on this first, otherwise dull day of outside seating. All of the restaurant’s ten sidewalk tables were busy during most of lunch hour. Maya and her boyfriend Justin decided to eat there to support the local business. But they had what they called a “selfish reason” of their own: “We wanted to have lunch as though things are back to normal, to what it used to be,” said Maya.

In a way, it’s easy to forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic, especially because customers are allowed to take off their masks while seated. But the bottles with hand sanitizer, signs with strict rules, and tables six feet apart pull guests back to reality. “It’s good to remind people that we still need to be careful, because we don’t want to walk backwards now,” said the branch’s owner, Robert Guarino. “For now, we have no expectations and we know this won’t be a regular summer, but so far, so good. We’re excited to be back.”

Expectation is what drove manager James Powell to overhaul the bar where he works, Lilly’s Craft and Kitchen. He and another employee spent the first day of outside dining not actually serving tables, but sawing boards and building a deck they will install on Second Avenue’s curbside. The deck was measured with precision so the tables will be stable and have a barrier from the cars rushing on the avenue—a safety measure. “You do it nicely and people will appreciate and come,” said Powell. “We hope that this way we’ll recover at least a bit from the crisis we’ve been through,” he said.

In addition to allowing seating on active sidewalks and roadways, the city has closed down over 45 miles of roads and opened them to pedestrian traffic and restaurant seating. In Inwood yesterday, City Council member Antonio Reynoso shared photos of tables taking over Seaman Avenue, outside of Mamasushi and Il Sole. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio dined in Harlem at Melba’s, a soul-food spot that has outdoor seating for the first time in its history.

By nightfall, in the East Village, the scene was decidedly more active, with diners filling the sidewalk cafes of popular al fresco destinations like Rosie’s, Veselka, Cafe Mogador, and Miss Lily’s, as well as the sidewalk seats outside of bars and restaurants, like 2A and Takahachi, that had previously never had them. At Frank, diners were seated at the usual fenced-in sidewalk cafe and also in a lane previously reserved for parking, between the bike path and the roadway. On one side, cars and dump trucks sped by just a few feet from the clinking wine glasses and heaps of spaghetti. On the other, a biker whizzed past and called out, “Enjoy your dinner!”