New York City has experienced a revolution in outdoor dining. The Open Restaurants program brought joy and community to isolated New Yorkers, kept businesses afloat during the economic downturn, and has reimagined social life for diners across the five boroughs. But nit-picking, squabbling, and fear of change could cause us to lose this program forever. We can’t go backward; now is the time to amend and pass Int. 31 to create a permanent Open Restaurant program.
Yes, the program needs improvement. Some complaints are valid, but most are caused, and exacerbated, by the temporary nature of the program. Without a permanent program, we can’t develop efficient systems for cleanliness and sanitation. We can’t create and enforce design standards. And we can’t expect restaurant owners to go all-in without knowing the long-term regulations and policies. Therefore, every day that we delay is a day we lose the economic benefits of a permanent program.
The city council must pass this bill to ensure business owners can pay back rent, employees can continue earning additional tips and income, and the program can grow by learning from experience.
The on-again, off-again process to wrangle a picture-perfect bill has gone on for too long and must be resolved. Their indecision and inability to make a decision has left business owners, employees, and neighbors consternated, with no end in sight.
A permanent program must:
Retain the year-round option. New Yorkers have shown that lower temperatures are no barrier to eating outdoors. The year-round option makes business sense. For smaller restaurants, having to store their outdoor dining materials during the winter would be impossible and cost prohibitive. Outdoor dining will continue to provide help to restaurants in the colder months, and will be especially helpful for people who are immunocompromised or highly susceptible to COVID.
Be administered by NYC DOT. NYC DOT has the responsibility to manage our entire streetscape. They’re the only agency that can incorporate Open Restaurants into a holistic approach to the public realm. NYC DOT has design professionals on staff and three years of experience managing the program. Issues with implementation and enforcement have more to do with the temporary and uncertain nature of the program than with the NYC DOT itself.
Create a sliding scale fee for permits. Smaller restaurants cannot afford the same fees as bigger businesses. The program must implement a sliding scale to encourage restaurants of all sizes to participate. It’s equitable – and more restaurants participating translates to greater overall economic benefit to the city. Fees must also be capped in the legislation to ensure affordability throughout changes in administration or local leadership.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle agree that we’re facing an impending fiscal crisis. So let’s talk numbers. Prior to the pandemic, New York City’s restaurant industry paid $10.7 billion in total wages citywide and made nearly $27 billion in taxable sales, making up almost 15% of taxable sales citywide in 2019. Dining is critical to continued and increased revenue for the city. Our initial Open Restaurants program saved an estimated 100,000 jobs and nearly 11,000 restaurants but the industry still needs a boost; restaurants still employ 35,000 fewer people than before the pandemic. And New York City deals with higher unemployment than the national average. Open Restaurants is good for New York City’s coffers, not only for the restaurant industry – in fact, brokers report that the ability to have outdoor dining space is an attractive element for potential tenants, helping to fill empty storefronts. We need to embrace this revenue-generating program and use it to our advantage. City Council must codify year-round outdoor dining.
It’s hard to imagine how a program this beneficial, and this popular, could possibly be in jeopardy. Even with current challenges, New Yorkers love their new dining options. Look around and you’ll see the proof everywhere – people are voting with their dollars and their butts. Even in the cold, long after dining rooms have reopened, New Yorkers are eating al fresco. Ending outdoor dining shouldn’t even be a consideration. It’s time for everyone to recognize that the program is here to stay and move on to making it better.