New York City was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of established small businesses shut their doors forever, after decades of thriving business and success. The aftermath of the pandemic left a wake of destruction throughout the city that was felt largely by the unemployed populous of working class citizens, many of who live paycheck to paycheck.
The pandemic forced citizens to rethink their existence in the city. Many New Yorkers, left for cheaper living, greater opportunity, or sorely the inability to afford life in the their prior state. Many who survived racked up a significant amount of debt, in order to maintain their residence in the city, as the federal government warned for greater advancement of the coronavirus and told citizens to prepare for greater economic devastation.
To survive in New York City, one must adapt to the ever changing conditions of the city, which is often a maintainable challenge. However, following the initial outbreak of the coronavirus infection many businesses “temporarily” shut their doors unknowingly forever. Those who survived, invested everything they had in order to stay operational, despite the city’s ordinances and mandates. The ever changing city continued to change, as restaurants began to realize they had another opportunity to stay in service.
Structures began to appear on sidewalks, walkways, parking lanes, bike-paths, just about everywhere there was room, in front of their restaurant. Their method was simple, defy the state ordinance against small businesses, and continue to serve and employ to population of New York. At first the structures either resembled huts, tents, bus-stops, or literal extensions of the indoor restaurant. Eventually, the “huts” evolved to have electricity, the “tents” disappeared, and the structures grew to become outdoor dining facilities, which when inside, feel greatly indoors. Still, many bus-stops have remained.
One experience, during winter of 2020 after searching for a restaurant with outdoor seating that was covered in a Colorado, existed a restaurant with two lone outdoor camping tents. The weather was cold enough to see your breath, and so were the inside of the tents. As we sat down, the restaurant worker (thankfully still employed, despite the economy and small business closures) brought out a portable gas heater, and sat it down next to the table inside of the outdoor camping tent. This strange contraption functioned as our dining room, and a fast realization that this was the new American dining experience throughout major cities nationwide.
In New York, structures without plexiglass covering are subject to fumes among the traffic. Often the structures are in the streets, if not alongside the cars. Exhaust mixed with the taste of your dish doesn’t sit well among the aroma of brake dust. Expensive restaurants were even forced to following these measures, making paying for an expensive meal that much less enjoyable as you consume your dish to the sound the car horn in your ear, as a truck repositions itself, causing a temporary block in traffic.
Finally, after what feels like forever, the traffic eases up and you can breathe again, however along will come five more cars with their speakers turned all the way up, blasting their favorite songs. People on foot walk by at arms length, often at eye level, gazing in at what is on your dish. Everything ordered is now on display for the public to critique. In New York City, you never know who could walk by from the street, or what they could be selling or proposing, who may not otherwise be let in to the restaurant to converse with you. Although more interesting, a much less enjoyable experience than previously dining at any eatery, whether luxurious, prestigious, or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
Beyond the consumer experience, and the city’s struggling, yet recovering economy, New York taxpayers can no longer walk on the sidewalks they pay for. They can no longer park on the streets they own. Bikers must squeeze between cars and structures, avoiding clipping their handlebars on very tight spaces, next to what used to be bike lanes. Walking has become hazardous at times due to low hanging extension cords used as “power lines” to provide electricity to the structure. Sometimes these can be across the sidewalk, with heaters blocking walkways.
Although the restaurant industry is not to blame for these creations, the evolution was necessary for many New Yorker’s survival, as well as their business. The city forced the hand of the business owner to create what some pedestrians consider “monstrosities.” When in actuality these structures function as a large portion of what is left of the city of New York. The act of “dining out” has become somewhat of a literal term for those seeking to return to the thriving city it once was. As of November 17th, 2021 there are 12,013 open restaurants that currently use outdoor dining for their businesses.
Newly elected Governor Eric Adams has announced that these rapidly-built temporary structures, may remain in place indefinitely. The City proposed amendment will remove restrictions of the location of the outdoor space being used by restaurants. The amendment is currently in progress, and needs an official vote from city council, as well as New York City’s mayor. As usual in government policies, temporary measures, once set in place, often never go away.
New York mayor-elect Eric Adams announced “Our restaurants are a bellwether for NYC, and outdoor dining is a huge part of what kept them afloat this past year. Eric supports outdoor dining because he believes in giving our restaurants every opportunity to succeed.”
“I want us to go for the gold here, and take this model and make it a part of the life of New York City for years and generations to come,” said Bill de Blasio on November 12th, during The Brian Lehrer Show. “This will make it a lot easier for restaurants to survive.”
“The necessity of moving dining outdoors during an emergency gave New York City the rare opportunity to pilot a significant land use change on a citywide scale, and in doing this to recognize the incredible vibrancy outdoor dining can bring,” Planning Commissioner Chair Anita Laremont said during the vote.
To combat the permanence of these installations, residents of NYC drafted a 108 page report highlighting the atrocities of outdoor dining using the new “structures” created as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. What is the cost of New York City’s “outdoor dining” experience to it’s surroundings?