On Tuesday, a New York City Council committee is debating a new bill to make the dining sheds that sprung up to keep restaurants in business during the pandemic a permanent fixture.
"It's important we save our small businesses, our restaurants," bill sponsor Marjorie Velazquez said. "What's worse to public safety is an empty storefront."
In a city where there is stiff competition for every square inch, there are now 12,000 such structures, and not everyone is happy about all the real estate going into restaurants.
"There are people who live on blocks who haven't had their streets cleaned in two years," one demonstrator said.
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Dozens protested in the Village over the weekend, citing an increase in garbage, rats, and people sleeping in the sheds, saying it is time for New York City to regain its sidewalks and streets.
The committee is meeting to establish rules for restaurants looking to use the sidewalks and curbside parking to set up outdoor dining structures.
The temporary outdoor dining program was established in June 2020 to help restaurants at the height of the pandemic when indoor dining was shut down.
Officials said 40 outdoor dining sheds have been removed so far, 22 fines handed out to restaurants, and 4,292 warnings issued for outdoor dining violations.
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While much of discussion has been about possible future visions of outdoor dining, without many specifics, a DOT official seemed to indicate that outdoor dining shacks will not be permitted in permanent outdoor dining.
"We don't envision sheds in the permanent program," said Julie Schipper, NYC DOT Director of Open Restaurants. "We are not planning for that. What would be in the roadway as barriers as tents or barriers, but not these full houses that you are seeing in the street. One of the main goals of this program is to really have a program that can last for years and years and something something we saw during COVID, you cannot cannot eat indoors. You had to eat outside in all weather. But that won't be the case going forward. This program is really being planned for a post COVID scenario, where you can dine outside when that feels nice and comfortable. but you won't need to be in a house on the street."
More than 12,000 restaurants are currently participating in the Open Restaurants program across all five boroughs, and Mayor Eric Adams has said he is in favor of making the outdoor option permanent.
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"We will create a license for sidewalk and roadway cafes, requiring cafes to comply with rules before they are built, subjecting them to inspection shortly after," DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez said.
So there would be more parameters and more rules regarding compliance, but it would be easier for restaurants to secure outdoor dining permits, and for restaurants desperate to create more revenue, it would be a continued lifeline.
The NYC Hospitality Alliance says 91% of restaurants it surveyed say a permanent outdoor dining program is "very important" to the future of their business.
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