Part of the Debate About Permanent Outdoor Dining Sheds

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Complaints about rats have exploded. There has long been an uneasy coexistence between New York City’s human population and its rat population. It became easier in the pandemic. And rats are one of the issues at the center of the public disputes about making permanent the expanded outdoor dining program. This includes streets lined with curb-side sheds, especially in the Village.

What are the numbers? City data suggest that sightings are more frequent than they’ve been in a decade.  Through July, New Yorkers called in some 16,230 rat sightings to the city’s 311 service request line. That’s 2,451 more than reported during the same period last year, and 6,109 more than in 2019, when there were 10,121 complaints, according to City Data.

In each of the first four months of 2022, the number of sightings was the highest recorded since at least 2010, the first year online records are available. By comparison, there were about 10,500 sightings in all of 2010 and 25,000 such reports in all of last year (sightings are most frequent during warm months).

Pre-pandemic, it was estimated that there were 2 million rats living in NYC. Whether the rat population has increased is up for debate, but the pandemic might have made the situation more visible.

Rats not only strike fear among the easily squeamish, they can also be a public health concern.

Last year, at least 13 people were hospitalized — one died — because of leptospirosis, a condition that attacks the kidneys and liver. Most human infections are associated with rats.

As NYC considers making outdoor dining permanent — an option born of necessity during the pandemic — it must be mindful of a further swelling of the rat population. Many locals, who are fighting permanent outdoor dining sheds, believe that the City is not.

Rats can survive on less than an ounce of food a day and rarely travel more than a city block to find food, according to rat scholars (Yes, there are real people who claim this credential.) Some New York City restaurants erected curbside sheds to allow COVID-wary diners to eat outside. But unfinished meals left at tables have sometimes drawn brazen four-legged leftover bandits. 

“What happened during the pandemic was that your restaurants shut down,” said Richard Reynolds, whose rat-hunting group known as Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (RATS) periodically takes out teams of dogs to sniff out — and kill — vermin. “When
outside dining came along, there was food again,” he explained.

In planter boxes outside dining sheds, rats lie in wait for any fallen crumb. They lurk in storm drains ready to lunge.

Another place rats hide – and live – is in cars. Many Village locals, including Bruce Poli, who writes for Westview and lives on Christopher Street are telling me stories about more rats in cars these days.

Rats don’t often venture into the passenger compartment. They go for the engine. They can chew through a wire — new soy-based insulation is essentially catnip for rats, said Michael Parsons, a visiting research scholar at Fordham University who is an urban rat expert (he even micro-chips them). Or they can leave leftovers in places where automotive engineers never imagined there would be food. This usually happens when a car is parked and the owner is asleep, because rats understand the rhythms of the city — as nocturnists, they know when they will not be disturbed. They move on when their nap is ended, but the problems linger on — the “check engine” message lights up when the owner turns the key.

But the biggest problem remains curbside garbage. According to Parsons, “people don’t really understand that it’s urban hygiene that contributes to rats, more so than individual or family hygiene. It’s more our practice of leaving garbage out on the curbside all night that contributes to rats. But if the city would take better care of their garbage at night, there would be fewer rat food sources.”

According to Parsons, in a recent interview in Streetsblog, “decreasing the budget to clean streets and decreasing pest control in the city, and outdoor dining being unregulated in terms of structures, all play a role in it. And another factor contributing to the city’s rat population that hardly anyone talks about is fissures in the ground that can be caused by unregulated outdoor dining structures.”

Arthur Z.  Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village and President of the non-profit legal foundation called Advocates for Justice.