Op-Ed | Proposed bill will allow NYC restaurants to have reliable heat for outdoor dining

Outdoor dining shacks along East 53rd Street in April 2021.
Photo by Mark Hallum

The unpredictability of the COVID pandemic—shutdowns, reopenings, new variants and more shutdowns—was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my 40 years in the restaurant business.

The surreal scene in front of my eatery last year, a vision of New Yorkers in heavy coats huddled around their meals outside, was not something I ever thought I would have to prepare for. But diners enjoyed the experience, which provided businesses like mine a critical lifeline during the height of the pandemic to stay in business, keep staff working and shine a little light on the city during perhaps its darkest hour.

My customers could not have sat outside and enjoyed their meals without reliable heat, and no heat source is better than propane in that regard. During the pandemic, the city issued an executive order allowing the use of propane in outdoor heaters. It worked, and it is time to make such use permanent.

A new bill, proposed by City Council Members Keith Powers and Marjorie Velazquez, would create a system that would legalize the use of propane gas in outdoor heaters. The bill would also adjust the municipal fire code to allow for the safe storage and handling of propane.

Though the fire code does require updating to allow its use, there is nothing inherently dangerous about propane to begin with. The Fire Department did not report a single accident caused by propane in 2020, while the executive order was in effect. Food trucks use propane to cook every day, yet there is no mass outbreak of explosions on our city streets. Backyards across the city, if not the entire nation, have propane grills and yet our neighborhoods remain safe.

What propane does offer is reliable heat. A recent analysis of data from OpenTable, the restaurant reservation website, found that bookings in New York City were down a full 66 percent in January 2022 compared to January 2020. In fact, my own business was down 50 percent during this time. Colder weather and concerns regarding the Omicron variant took hold of our city concurrently, leading my potential customers to simply stay home. 

Other options for outdoor heat, namely electric heat and natural gas, are not as reliable as propane. Propane is also entirely portable, while other options require expensive hookups to indoor systems.  During the pandemic, businesses like mine invested in propane systems, and this new law would allow us to continue to make use of them rather than lose the money we’ve already spent. 

The delta and omicron variants joined forces to wreak havoc on small businesses of all types this winter. Restaurants like mine saw many of their customers stay home rather than risk eating indoors and getting sick.

That has consequences. Though Veselka has seen a welcome surge in customers as New Yorkers show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, for most of the winter my restaurant has been forced to cut our hours. We have not been open 24/7, and with that cutback comes a 25 percent staffing cut. I want the city to recover, and I want to bring people back to work. More dining options means more opportunities to work, and the path to expanded hours and full employment runs right through reliable heat sources.

Spring is right around the corner. Unfortunately, restaurants were forced to go without propane this winter for a variety of reasons, from safety concerns to the legislative calendar. The bill put forward by Council Members Powers and Velazquez gives us the opportunity to plan ahead if some new emergency forces our diners back into the streets, or to simply accommodate those customers who are uncomfortable eating indoors–and may never be comfortable again. 

Birchard is the owner of Veselka, the world famous Ukrainian coffee shop in the East Village.

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