Op-ed | The need for a permanent outdoor dining program

Virus Outbreak NYC Streets
People walk through an area where restaurants operate outdoor spaces for dining that spread onto sidewalks and streets as part of continued COVID-19 economic impact mitigation efforts, on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020 in New York City.
AP Photo/John Minchillo

We still remember March 2020 like it was yesterday. We’ve owned and operated Spicy Shallot in Elmhurst since 2005. As COVID-19 swept through our city, we cut our staff down to a skeleton crew of six, and looking at the overwhelmed Elmhurst Hospital just a block away, we thought this could be the end.

Thankfully, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio extended us a lifeline, launching a temporary Open Restaurants program to allow us to serve New Yorkers in roadway and sidewalk cafes. We’re now up to 30 staff, and our community of restaurants is thriving. But with that lifeline came a worry – what happens when the pandemic ends? Will we lose this additional space to serve New Yorkers? Will we have to fire staff we were able to retain because we had this new space? Will we have to raise our prices to make up for a loss in seating? 

Last month, Mayor Eric Adams and the New York City Council took a big step towards putting those worries to bed. The bill they unveiled to create a permanent open restaurants program will give restaurant owners the certainty we need – and it’ll give New Yorkers the safe, clean, vibrant streets they deserve. Now, we need the City Council to pass this bill, so we can continue to deliver a great outdoor dining experience for our city. 

Over the course of the pandemic, outdoor dining saved thousands of restaurants and 100,000 jobs in our city. But it did more than that – it revealed a new way to use shared public space. We learned that we can do more with our streets and sidewalks than we were before. We saw, with our own eyes what an open restaurants program can do for a city. 

But at the same time, we saw what a haphazard open restaurants program can do to a city. No one – and least of all restaurant owners – liked seeing the shoddy, abandoned sheds that dotted the city. We didn’t want our outdoor dining setups to become safe havens and all-you-can-eat buffets for rats and other animals, and we didn’t want to put New Yorkers in danger with unsafe roadway setups.  

So if we’re going to have an outdoor dining program that delivers on its potential and avoids its pitfalls, we need the City Council to pass this legislation. It would create a permanent outdoor dining program, with clear design guidelines and rules of the road, run by the Department of Transportation, which oversees and manages the variety of demands and needs on our city streets, curbs and sidewalks.  Restaurant owners will be able to host outdoor dining every day of the year on sidewalks and eight months of the year on roadways, with clear guidance for how, where, and when to erect their setups. Our city will be able to fix roadways over the winter, deprive rats of food and shelter, and deliver a more vibrant cityscape to residents. And New Yorkers will be able to enjoy the best outdoor dining experience in the world, in the greatest city in the world.  

Is this the exact bill we restaurant owners and operators would have drafted? No, of course not. Removing and storing our roadway dining setups when not in use over the winter will pose a challenge, and we’re looking forward to engaging with the city to figure out storage solutions that can support small restaurants. And it’ll take some work to make sure we’re in compliance with the new regulations, come next summer. But the bottom line is this – this legislation is good for restaurants, it’s good for New Yorkers, and it’s good for our city. If passed, it will permanently lock in the best parts of the outdoor dining experiment we’ve been a part of for the past three years and do away with the worst. We need our City Council to pass this bill. 

James and Inthira Lam own Spicy Shallot, a Thai restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens. Morgan Taylor is the restaurant’s general manager.