If you want to know about the future of outdoor dining in New York City, read this.
When our city’s restaurants and nightlife were shut down due to the pandemic, the NYC Hospitality Alliance co-authored an op-ed with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in which we called for a transformative enhancement and expansion of outdoor dining because indoor dining was mandated to close.
Shortly thereafter, our organization joined Mayor de Blasio at City Hall for a press conference announcing the Open Restaurants, outdoor dining program, which allowed eating and drinking establishments to serve customers on sidewalks and roadway areas in front of their establishments. Businesses could setup almost immediately and pay no fee to the City to participate. The number of participating businesses jumped to approximately 11,000, from just over 1,000 enrolled in the city’s traditional sidewalk café program.
While it was never believed that the Open Restaurants program would “save the industry,” and we know some businesses experienced challenges with it, the program overall has been an incredible success! The program is responsible for helping thousands of restaurants and bars survive, and it is credited for the rehiring of about 100,000 New Yorkers who lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic. The program also generates critically important tax revenue for the city and state, it brought a vibrancy back to the desolate city streets and allowed people to leave their homes after being stuck inside for months to socialize safely while enjoying great food, drink and hospitality.
The Open Restaurants program was so popular that a provision was included in legislation we advocated for extending this temporary program and creating a permanent version of outdoor dining. This does not mean the temporary Open Restaurants program and its associated requirements are permanent - changes, likely some significant, will be made when the permanent program is enacted.
We hope the following Q & A will help inform you about the future of outdoor dining in New York City and help you plan for the future.
Q. When does the temporary Open Restaurants program expire?
A. The Open Restaurants program expires on September 30, 2021 at which time your business may no longer operate on the sidewalk and in the roadway under the current emergency program. Only those with the traditional sidewalk cafe license will be able to operate in their approved area. However, the Open Restaurants program could be temporarily extended again, but multiple factors must occur for an extension to occur. We will keep you updated should the temporary Open Restaurants program be extended.
Q. When will we know the details of the permanent outdoor dining program?
A. Since the current program expires on September 30, 2021 our goal is for the City to finalize the details of the permanent program before this date. However, depending on multiple factors, the final outdoor dining program may be finalized after the aforementioned date. To create the permanent outdoor dining program, and thereby change the sidewalk cafe laws, it requires government drafting legislation and rules, holding public hearings and more. If a permanent new law is not in place by September 30, 2021, we will advocate for an extension of the temporary program until such time that new law does take effect.
Q. Why was the city able to setup the temporary Open Restaurants program so quickly but the permanent program is taking longer?
A. Due to the pandemic, the Mayor and Governor were granted emergency powers which enable them to override traditional legislative and rule making processes to enact such a program. For example, with the emergency powers, the Mayor was able to permit businesses to serve food and beverage to customers on the sidewalk and in roadway areas wherever they are located, which in non-pandemic times is significantly restricted by zoning and other laws. Similarly, the Governor was empowered to issue an executive order permitting the service of alcohol in non-contiguous spaces like the roadway, and also allow alcohol to be served on the sidewalk without the business filing an alteration application to their liquor license with the State Liquor Authority.
Q. My business invested money in my outdoor dining setup, such as building a structure in the roadway. Will my current outdoor dining setup under the temporary Open Restaurants programs be permitted under the permanent outdoor dining program being developed?
A. Because a permanent outdoor dining program must go through a lengthy proposal, amendment and review process, it is impossible to determine the details of the final program until it is officially approved. However, it is unlikely that the setups and structures that have been built will be permitted under the permanent outdoor dining program. As a reminder, the current program and requirements were setup quickly during an emergency to help the hospitality industry and it was always intended to be temporary. A permanent outdoor dining program requires many additional considerations, such as how it interacts with other uses of the public space, long-term safety and structural integrity considerations, easy access for street cleaning and construction, among many other factors.
Q. What considerations should I make if I am thinking about investing more money in my outdoor dining setup and structure under the temporary Open Restaurants program?
A. This is a business and financial decision you must make independently. What we can tell you is that the current program is scheduled to expire on September 30, 2021 at which time you must stop operating and need to remove the setup and structures. There is a chance the temporary Open Restaurants program will be extended past September 30, 2021, but that is not guaranteed and will not be known until closer to the scheduled expiration. It is also unlikely that the exact layout and structures allowed under the temporary Open Restaurants program will be permitted under the permanent program, and they may have to be removed or modified. Thus, we highly recommend you take all this into consideration before making modifications and investments in outdoor dining structures under the temporary Open Restaurants program.
Q. What will the permanent outdoor dining program look like?
A. It is too soon to make that determination. However, the NYC Hospitality Alliance is working closely with the Mayor and the City Council and is advocating to make the permanent program much less expensive than the traditional pre-pandemic sidewalk café program, to make the application and approval process to participate in the program faster, and to allow eating and drinking establishments located anywhere in the five boroughs to participate in the program, and to allow for sidewalk and roadway seating that is subject to reasonable congestion and clearance requirements and obstruction limitations.
A final note:
It is important to note, that the above information is subject to change based on legal and political factors, but we believe the above Q & A is a fair representation of the state of outdoor dining as of April 2021. These are technical, regulatory and legal matters and we highly recommend you base your decision making related to the future of outdoor dining only on official and approved documentation and policies, which we will share when it becomes available.
We also remind you that participation in the current Open Restaurants program is subject to placement and structural requirements, among other standards, which are still in effect. You may click here to review details of the temporary Open Restaurants program.
The NYC Hospitality Alliance is deeply involved in developing a permanent program with the City and will advocate to create the best permanent outdoor dining program possible. We are incredibly grateful for your support and feedback in creating one of the most monumental, beneficial and popular programs that reimagines New York City’s outdoor space in recent history.