City Council Finally Gets Ball Rolling on Sidewalk Cafes

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City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) and City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Williamsburg, Bushwick, Queens) joined legislators and restaurant owners in a virtual press conference, today to announce the introduction of legislation regarding outdoor dining amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation will require the Department Of Transportation (DOT) to identify open spaces and streets where restaurants and bars can safely serve customers outside under the health department guidelines.

The goal is to create a fast and simple permitting process for small businesses to apply for outdoor services throughout the city, and be prepared once the city’s reopening Phase Three for restaurants and bars arrives. The order would expire October 31st, 2020, or when social distancing requirements are lifted. 

Antonio Reynoso
City Council Member Antonio Reynoso
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

“I think we’ve clearly in the council been pushing the administration to go farther, to go quicker, to think outside the box, to be innovative. To try and do everything we can ahead of the curve to help small businesses, to help restaurants,” said Johnson. “We cannot wait until we’re already into phase one or phase two. They should already be having interagency meetings. So that we can work through the kinks.”  

Mayor Bill De Blasio said, in yesterday’s daily briefing when asked, “We’ve been talking to a lot of folks in the restaurant, bar industry. There’s a lot of excitement about this possibility. It’s not in phase one as it’s structured now, and again we are on track with phase one to begin in the first or second week of June. We’re looking very intensely with what we can do with bars and restaurants, but again safety first attitude.” 

In today’s call, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer urged the Mayor to act quickly to save small businesses.

“We cannot be followers on this, we have to be leaders,” said BP Brewer.

In her open letter to the DOT, she noted that the space created by the Open Streets program with the reopening of sidewalk cafés would help businesses after months of declining operations. She said she understands about noise levels and traffic concerns from people, but they need a law to begin working with some kind of criteria.  

“We know that restaurants, when we’re all admitted to reopen, we’re going to have to open under reduced occupancy and social distance requirements, meaning we’re not going to be able to generate 100 percent of our revenue inside,” said Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of NYC Hospitality Alliance. “So we have to be creative. How can we reimagine public spaces, the sidewalks, the streets? Extending the sidewalks, pedestrians plazas, parks, so restaurants can set up tables and chairs and generate that loss of revenue from indoors, outdoors.”   

Borough President Eric Adams
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

Similarly, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said on his social media and in a separate open letter to the Mayor earlier this month that he was onboard with outside seating. 

He mentioned that there should be no zoning district designation between residential and commercial overlays, an issue that’s been raised by restaurant owners in Bed-Stuy that have been fighting to get rezoned for sidewalk cafe licenses for years.

One of the most vocal restaurant owners, Charlotta Janssen who runs Chez Oskar in Bed-Stuy, has been petitioning for the last month for more sidewalk cafes and safety measures to reopen restaurants. She said she’s happy that the city council is addressing the need for more outside seating, but she can’t help but be worried. 

She said she hopes that the Mayor will sign the legislation and have stronger, more decisive language for reopening restaurants in the future. “They take away red tape to add more red tape,” said Janssen. “What upsets me is that we have to take orders and we have to bend over. This is a dialogue so that we can restart and do it as [safely] as possible, but every time it’s like they’re more worried about the bad actors than the good ones. I want to survive and I want them to care.”

While equity is very important, said Reynoso, we have to take into account the density of the restaurants that exist in the city and where they are matters, which is why they’re leaning on expertise from the DOT to help map out problem areas. He unequivocally wants the city to be proactive for small businesses no matter what, instead of the pattern of reactiveness without planning during this crisis.

William Padilla, owner of Mamajuana Cafe in the Bronx, said that restaurants have a small margin of profits and what’s needed is an aggressive approach for them to succeed. “Outdoor cafes gives a great look to the community, people drive by and they see activity, they see people going out. I think it’s a great look to see the city coming back.”                    

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