Op-ed | Building on the economic successes of outdoor dining will propel NYC

Juliet and Justine Masters, owners of the Edge in Harlem, sit in their outdoor dining space.
Photo by Dean Moses

On a frosty Sunday back in February 2022, Mayor Eric Adams, a group of city council members, and community leaders joined us in the Bronx to enjoy a delicious meal while dining alfresco to support a local restaurant and show our support for the future of outdoor dining.  

It was this pandemic-era Open Restaurants outdoor dining policy that was launched in June of 2020 that helped save thousands of restaurants across the five boroughs from permanently shuttering. Officials credited the policy with restoring 100,000 restaurant jobs and allowing New Yorkers and visitors to socialize safely over a great meal while stimulating our struggling economy and revitalizing our barren streetscape. 

Now after three years, the city of New York must transition out of this temporary emergency outdoor dining policy, into a permanent outdoor dining program that preserves the wonderful aspects of alfresco dining while reining in its pandemic system. That’s why, as the city council member who is the prime sponsor of the permanent outdoor dining bill and a restaurant industry representative who advocated for the emergency program and supports this proposal, we urge its swift passage at the legislative body’s meeting on August 3rd where it’s scheduled to be voted on. 

After months of difficult negotiation and compromise with many different stakeholders, we’ve reached a final version of the bill we should all be proud of. It’s a vast improvement over the sidewalk cafe law the city had in effect before COVID-19 and the pandemic outdoor dining program. 

For restaurants, the licensing process will be faster, have less red tape, and cost less to prepare and file an application than pre-pandemic sidewalk cafes. The annual fees restaurants pay to the city will be considerably less than the pre-pandemic sidewalk café fees, an important change as it used to be cost prohibitive for many small businesses to participate.

Thousands of restaurants that were prohibited from even having a sidewalk café pre-pandemic will now be eligible to apply for outdoor dining and the city will collect revenue for the use of the space. This bill is more inclusive for small restaurants in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. 

In addition to sidewalk cafes, many restaurants will be eligible to have roadway dining, a pandemic era innovation worth making permanent in the law. Sidewalk cafes will be year-round like they always were, and roadway dining will be eight months a year. We understand different people have different views on this, but it is a compromise and can always be revisited by the City Council in the future, if needed. We’d like to see a niche market develop of companies that build and sell beautiful modular streeteries and store them for restaurants in the off season at a reasonable price. 

For residents and other stakeholders of the public realm this bill means that all sidewalk cafes will revert to what they used to look like with tables, chairs, umbrellas and perhaps some planters. The city’s Department of Transportation will undertake a public review process to develop and finalize the design guidelines for the roadway streeteries, which the law requires to be open to the air — it will be time to say goodbye to the fully or nearly enclosed roadway structures. They’ll also have shorter hours of operation, sidewalk and roadway clearance and accessibility requirements, and sanitary standards. The licensing review process is built into the law and will be further addressed during the city’s rule making procedure that occurs after the law is enacted.

We know that in a big complex city like New York people have many opinions about outdoor dining and city council members may have reservations about specific provisions of the bill, but this is the classic, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” scenario. If the City Council does not pass this bill this summer, all outdoor dining (sidewalk cafes & roadway streeteries) is at risk of total elimination very soon.

 That would be an unprecedented disaster for our city that will cause chaos and put restaurants and jobs on the chopping block and end outdoor dining for all who love it. The public and city council members alike should support this permanent outdoor dining bill. It supports small businesses, creates jobs, and generates tax revenue to support our city’s essential services – and it does it all while further securing New York City as the culinary and restaurant capital of the world.  

New York City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez is the Chairperson for the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection which protects and enhances the daily economic lives of New Yorkers to create thriving communities.

Andrew Rigie is the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance a not-for-profit association that represents restaurants, bars, and nightclubs across the five boroughs.