Get ready for a lot more outdoor dining in NYC

As restaurants tackle how to convince customers it’s safe to dine out again—once it’s legal—they’ve explored everything from building private greenhouses to installing robots to take orders. But in a no-nonsense approach, New York City is pushing for a more practical solution: open up the sidewalks and streets.

The city council passed a number of measures today to help restaurants out during the current crisis, including waiving sidewalk consent fees. In other words, the city currently acts like a landlord and charges restaurants for setting up tables on public sidewalks. 

“We must be laser-focused on helping New York City emerge from this crisis,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a virtual press conference this morning with the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “One of the ways we can do that is by protecting our small businesses, our restaurants, our bars, our cafes. Many of them were struggling before this crisis hit but COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on them.”

While a growing number of restaurants are jumping into the delivery and takeout arena, they’re still waiting to find out when they can reopen. And even when that time arrives, there are numerous safety measures that have been discussed, including limiting how many people can sit in a dining room, plastic utensils replacing silverware and even foregoing paper menus.

While restaurant operators understand such protocols, it will also hurt their bottom line. Other states that have begun reopening have started emphasizing al fresco dining and for New York restaurants—many which have limited seats to begin with—the additional seating expansion to sidewalks or even streets is welcome. 

“One of the best ways to reopen the city safely and support industries impacted by the shutdown is to reimagine how we use public space—sidewalks, streets, pedestrian plazas and parks—and allow restaurants to set up and serve food in these areas,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in an email statement sent to Time Out New York. “Plus, customers will be more comfortable eating outside, and New York City can be a leader in doing this in a safe, healthy way.”

In addition to the sidewalk fee waivers, Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign other policies to help protect restaurants. Those measures include putting caps on the fees delivery platforms can collect (some have charged as much as 30% of sales) and not allowing landlords to go after the personal assets of small business owners who can’t afford their commercial leases.

“Outdoors is an interesting and promising possibility to rely on more of the service being outdoors,” de Blasio stated in a press conference last week. “You still need precautions, but that's an interesting option we're looking at.” 
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