One of the greatest developments to come out of the pandemic was the transformation of our streets into places of public gathering and community. Busy car-filled thoroughfares transformed into pedestrian plazas overnight through the Open Streets program. Restaurants were allowed to spill out onto the street, infusing the city — which had been eerily deserted during the early months of COVID — with a new and optimistic sense of vibrancy and life. We could go out! We could see our friends! And get a properly mixed cocktail! It felt like New York would make it.
But the emergency executive order that created the Open Restaurants program and was designed to help keep restaurants and their employees afloat was not designed to last forever. It was designed as a temporary fix to get us through the pandemic. Rolled out in June 2020, the program allowed restaurants to expand their dining areas onto sidewalks and, more importantly, roadways.
Let’s not forget the existential crisis NYC restaurants were facing at the time. Restaurant jobs and wages in NYC dropped by more than 64% after the onset of COVID. The pandemic had a far more devastating impact on the industry here compared to the rest of the country. The Open Restaurants program is credited with keeping many NYC dining establishments open that might otherwise have shuttered. It expanded al fresco eating throughout the city, introducing sidewalk cafes in many neighborhoods outside Manhattan for the first time and boosting New York City during the darkest days of the pandemic.
The future of outdoor dining in New York is now in the hands of the City Council, which is set to vote this week on a bill sponsored by City Councilwoman Marjorie Velazquez to create a permanent Open Restaurants program. Most importantly, the legislation will ensure that the expansion of outdoor dining we witnessed during COVID doesn’t disappear from our streetscape.
The bill promises to improve the licensing process by speeding it up, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and lowering application costs and annual fees. Before the pandemic, the fees charged to restaurants to operate sidewalk cafes were prohibitively expensive for many business owners. Under the new bill, many smaller restaurants, especially those outside Manhattan, won’t be priced out of outdoor dining.
Sidewalk dining will be able to operate year-round under the proposed permanent program, but dining on roads will be limited to just eight months a year, from April through November. Restaurant owners will need to decide how and where to store dining sheds during the winter months, which will be a challenge, but overall the bill is a big win for New York.
The dramatic expansion of outdoor dining was one of the best developments to come out of the pandemic. Let’s keep our streets vibrant and our restaurants full. It’s time to make Open Restaurants a permanent part of our city.