Op-Ed | Outdoor dining is in danger due to city regulations on heaters

If Mayor de Blasio fails to provide quick heating relief for New York City’s restaurants, we’ll all be feeling the pro-pain this coming winter.

Last year the Department of Transportation launched the emergency Open Restaurants Program, which provided restaurants like mine with a crucial lifeline to remain open in a safe, healthy way by allowing us to use the sidewalk and street parking spaces to serve customers.

This program is now permanent, an especially welcome turn of events given the continued risk of COVID and our customers’ desire to both spread out and sit in well-ventilated areas.

Frigid New York winters make Open Restaurants impossible without quality heaters. Last year, the mayor signed an executive order allowing those heaters to be powered by liquid propane gas, which had been illegal in New York City.

Hundreds of restaurants like my own–Ernesto’s on the Lower East Side–made considerable investments in propane heaters. That money is likely wasted, since the mayor’s executive order has expired and propane is illegal in New York City once again, making it the only major city in the country to ban such heating devices. Why? The results could be catastrophic for restaurants and diners alike. 

This move has put the entire dining program in jeopardy, and many of my industry colleagues are completely in the dark with just weeks to go before the weather turns. Without a new waiver to use propane in our outdoor heaters, scores of restaurants will be forced to make another expensive investment in new electric or natural gas heaters and go through a time-consuming permit process to install them. Restaurants will be forced to spend money they cannot afford and waste time that could be better spent serving customers.

Propane burns hotter, as well, and makes for a much more pleasant dining experience. Propane patio heaters are proven to raise the outdoor air temperature up to 25 degrees. This creates additional table capacity, and the additional revenue and sales tax that comes with it. If diners are too cold they aren’t going to stick around for an extra drink or order dessert, and they probably won’t come back for another meal.

Propane is also greener, emitting 43 percent less greenhouse gas than electricity. And it’s as safe, if not safer, than electricity. There was not a single propane accident throughout last year’s outdoor dinner season. Food trucks all over the five boroughs use propane to cook every day, and there has not been a proliferation of explosions.

Installing electric heaters would also turn our dining districts into a ridiculous game of hopscotch. Patrons, staff and our neighbors will be forced to navigate a veritable minefield of new trip hazards after restaurants are forced to run cables from their indoor power supplies across the sidewalk and out to the street. Propane is wireless.

The pandemic has devastated New York City’s hospitality industry, and that devastation continues. A September survey found that 51 percent of restaurants nationwide could not pay their rent, and that reservations in New York State were down almost 36 percent from pre-pandemic levels. 

Every day we learn of a new restaurant that just cannot hold on in the face of COVID-19 and the economic havoc it has wreaked on our industry. From long-held institutions to new culinary upstarts, your favorite places to eat are shuttering, or clawing to hold on. We don’t need statistics to make clear just how dire the situation is – you can walk around your neighborhood and see it firsthand. 

Restaurants like mine and the thousands that make up this city’s food scene need all the help they can get. With a stroke of the pen Mayor de Blasio can extend the executive order allowing the use of liquid propane gas for outdoor dining, saving us from unnecessary expense, wasted time and disappointed customers. Mr. Mayor, please do the right thing. 

Alexandra Niakani is part of the ownership team at Ernesto’s, an award winning Basque-inspired restaurant on the Lower East Side. 

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