When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City and devastated our restaurant industry, the Open Restaurants outdoor dining program launched later in the year shielding thousands of businesses from permanently closing, saving about 100,000 industry jobs — the majority of which were held by minority and immigrant New Yorkers — enlivening and reimagining our streets, and bringing family and friends safely back together after months of isolation.
Nearly 12,000 businesses signed up for the temporary emergency outdoor dining program beginning in June 2020. Nonetheless, thousands of restaurants still permanently shuttered, many are still struggling for survival, and 65% of New York restaurants were shutout of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund relief fund when the money was quickly exhausted. The lack of adequate small business relief has left too many local restaurants and bars desperately in need, all while the city’s industry is still 75,00 jobs short compared to pre-pandemic employment levels, and no one knows when business will return to 2019 sales levels.
Now, Mayor Adams and the new City Council have inherited the Open Restaurants program in its temporary emergency status, and it’s critical the City of New York’s promised transition to permanency becomes a top priority for lawmakers. According to owners and operators of 726 restaurants representing all five boroughs my organization, the NYC Hospitality Alliance, recently surveyed, 91% said permanent outdoor dining is very important to the future of their business, 92% said it would allow them to hire more people in the future, which is needed in our city where employment growth significantly lags the rest of the nation. And unsurprisingly, 88% said dining alfresco is very popular among their customers.
The emergency outdoor dining program was launched quickly to save restaurants and jobs in an unprecedented crisis, and it evolved throughout the pandemic’s crushing waves, indoor dining restrictions, summer heatwaves and winter storms as a matter of restaurant sector survival. Still, Open Restaurants hasn’t been a perfect system for restaurants with changing guidelines and uneven enforcement, and even with its extraordinary popularity, there are valid community concerns with outdoor dining that must be addressed in a constructive way. But, obstructing progress of the program can’t be on the menu.
That’s why the City Council must approve the Open Restaurants Zoning Text Amendment passed nearly unanimously by the Planning Commission last year as it will allow more businesses to have outdoor dining that will otherwise be restricted when the emergency program expires. Then, the City must pass legislation creating the regulatory framework for a new and improved permanent outdoor dining program that includes sidewalk and roadway cafes that will be a beloved feature of our city’s streetscape. Finally, specific rules such as design guidelines, clearance, and operating requirements must be established.
New York City is the greatest city in the world, and as we emerge from the pandemic-induced doom and gloom, we must show ourselves and the world that we will survive, recover, and build back smarter and stronger. Permanent outdoor dining is a challenging yet exciting opportunity for our city and it should be viewed as a catalyst for more outdoor arts and performances, open air shops, enhanced transportation, and containerization of our city’s trash, as a requisite to the city’s recovery and rebirth. Politics, change, and progress are hard, but I am optimistic that it is still possible in New York City.
Especially after last weekend when I joined Mayor Adams, City Council members and other guests for a delicious lunch at Mario’s Restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where we discussed the future of Open Restaurants. It was a bit chilly dining alfresco in their outdoor café in February, but it was heartwarming to hear our elected leaders express such strong support for city’s restaurant industry recovery and future growth. I hope New Yorkers and visitors will continue to break bread while dining alfresco as we did this past Sunday, for many years to come.
Andrew Rigie is the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.