The Future of Open Dining: Closing Time is Long Past

By Leslie Clark

New York City is littered with the deteriorating detritus of the pandemic emergency outdoor dining program. Once beautiful and distinctive neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Jackson Heights, Astoria, Chelsea, Chinatown, Flushing and Greenwich Village are now a tangle of makeshift and decaying sheds festooned with fake flowers and sad, limp strings of cheap lights—an embarrassment to their residents and a repellent eyesore to visitors.

Consider the short history of a program once proclaimed as “universally popular.” Sympathetic residents wholeheartedly supported the effort as a way to get neighborhood restaurants up and running during the early months of the pandemic—with the understanding that this use of our shared public property would be temporary.

But, in just three months in the summer of 2020, Mayor de Blasio, the City Council, and lobbyists from the Hospitality Alliance redefined temporary as permanent—a word that could now mean “forever.” That’d be a classic bait-and-switch.

But even New Yorkers worn out by pandemic grief were too smart to be duped by this move. Instead, we formed our own opinions about Open Restaurants from our new daily experience of shimmying through sidewalks cluttered with tables and chairs, skirting around massive piles of restaurant garbage, and avoiding the rats swarming from the ubiquitous dining sheds.

So, in the summer of 2021, when presented with a proposal to permanently “amend” the zoning and sidewalk dining rules of New York to tip the scales in favor of a single industry, a majority of Community Boards rejected a plan that would forever change neighborhoods we had long loved. Result? The same politicians who appointed those Community Board members turned around and voted against their stated wishes.

Conditions have only worsened under Mayor Adams. Standing water next to sheds has bred mosquitoes. Street sweeping has long been interrupted on streets with dining sheds. Some curb lanes haven’t been cleaned by a Sanitation Department broom truck in more than two years. And dining shed crowds generate more garbage which our pandemic-strapped city can’t afford to collect. Result? It stinks, literally.

Outdoor dining structures range from attractive and well-maintained to festering cesspools of human and animal waste.

Perhaps the only thing worse than the stench is the noise. Put restaurants outside on the street and they behave the way they do inside: they blast music at inebriated customers whose voices rise, decibel by decibel, until they’re shouting to compete with the music. That alcohol-fueled din reverberates through the homes of the residents nearby, including kids, seniors, first responders, and all who need to get a decent night’s sleep.
The mayor and some in the City Council like to talk about “equity,” but there has been precious little of that on New York’s once vibrant shop-filled streets. While restaurants have doubled and tripled their capacity with Open Restaurants, the small stores that truly serve a neighborhood—stationery stores, toy stores, dry cleaners—have received no such windfall.

Instead, those essential small businesses have had to struggle with the effects of the pandemic while also having their doorways, signage, and customer parking blocked by restaurants. Suffering from that double whammy, those neighboring businesses lost, and continue to lose, customers and sales.

Diverse small businesses in Manhattan’s traditional restaurant neighborhoods—the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen and Chinatown—have been especially hard-hit. In those areas, the number of sidewalk cafes and new outdoor shed seating tripled and even quadrupled, crowding out other shops.

A program in which already restaurant-saturated areas have become exponentially more flooded is not fostering “equity”—not for the outer boroughs and certainly not for other small businesses or the residents of those now overflowing Manhattan streets. Some of these historic streets are so old and so narrow that fire engines and ambulances can barely navigate past the sheds. Nor has there been much “equity” in the legislative process where industry lobbyists have long had a seat at the table, while the public has been shut out. The legislation currently being considered to make the Open Restaurants program permanent is called Intro 0031-2022. Last November, 43 leaders of New York community-based associations called on City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams to hold public hearings on that bill. Those community leaders have called for truly representative, local democracy to return to New York City. The city’s response to community voices? Radio silence.

This program belonged to the pandemic era, an era that is now ending. Does any member of the City Council want to be associated forever with the dated and dangerous blight of Open Restaurants foisted on New York’s neighborhoods during a time we’d like to put behind us?

Leslie Clark is a member of the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy (CUEUP). This piece originally appeared in the NY Daily News.