Shut down NYC’s outdoor-dining sheds
Will somebody remind restaurant-industry advocates that, despite much hysteria, indoor dining didn’t kill every last one of us during the pandemic?
And today’s packed restaurants aren’t sending New Yorkers to the hospital with COVID, either. Yet the New York City Hospitality Alliance is again warning the city not to even think about ending the so-called “Open Restaurants” program which gave beleaguered eateries and bars a lifeline during the crisis of 2020.
The group’s campaign isn’t about health, but about dollars and cents. Outdoor dining is “key” to Big Apple eateries’ survival as they “struggle to recoup years of pandemic-induced losses,” the alliance said this week.
But the continued existence — make that proliferation — of the alfresco shanties makes for an “emergency” atmosphere which The New York Times and other nostalgists for lockdown continue to feed. Meanwhile, the outdoor-seating plague feeds restaurant owners’ coffers.
Although the coronavirus crisis ended long ago, too many owners cynically and selfishly exploit the alfresco eyesores’ staying power simply to make more money — no matter the damage and ugliness they inflict on streets that already had chaos to spare.
Owners are panicking that “comprehensive” new city regulations, now grinding through the City Council, might be too complicated or too costly to comply with — if they don’t strike down the sheds for good.
The alliance heroically advocated for government relief for its members during the worst of the pandemic, and helped to save untold numbers of eateries that would otherwise have gone under.
But its campaign to protect restaurants’ outdoor cash cows, which many now regard as a God-given right, is past its sell-by date.
To demonstrate how lucrative sheds can be to more than 11,000 owners, the alliance cited a Department of Transportation survey which found that restaurants and bars on car-free streets “strongly outperformed” on sales growth places on nearby streets that maintained vehicular traffic.
Well, duh — of course they did. Thanks to the sheds, they have more seats!
That’s the true crux of the issue for many eateries. None of today’s well-known, and very real, challenges — inflation, the scarcity of help, earlier dining hours — can blunt the boon that comes from having more tables without having to pay for them in the form of rent or license fees.
It’s an open secret among restaurateurs honest enough to admit that outdoor sheds are the city’s gift that never stops giving. They range in quality from elaborately decorated tropical and Asian fantasies to Third World lean-to’s. But whether they cost $100,000 or peanuts to build, they let some owners take in more cash than they ever did with indoor seating only.
Even restaurants where sheds are little-used are loath to take them down. They keep them up “just in case,” as at Finnegans Wake on First Avenue at East 73rd Street — where I haven’t seen a single customer in the unsightly, padlocked shed on the avenue side for a year.
A manager at Benoit, a well-regarded French restaurant on West 55th Street, had this to say a few days ago when I asked if they planned to keep their outdoor structure up even though only a few people were using it.
“Absolutely,” he said. “But we’re going to make it better. We’re going to really enclose it and put in heaters.”
But why does Benoit, a beautiful place with a menu supervised by Alain Ducasse, need a “dining room” in the street?
How does a fully enclosed “outdoor” room make the handful of people who still worry about COVID spread from eating indoors feel any safer?
How fair is it to competitors without alfresco sheds for Benoit, or Indochine on Lafayette Street, or Balthazar on Spring Street, to install lots of seats essentially for free beyond the one-time setup cost?
For sure, restaurateurs have one legitimate reason to sweat: The city gave the lead role in establishing and enforcing new rules for design, safety and attractiveness to the all-thumbs Department of Transportation, which has only made traffic conditions worse.
Too many dining sheds are part of the problem. They thicken the obstacle courses that motorists must navigate amidst bike lanes, bus lanes and inscrutable turning rules.
So no surprise that a car recently smashed into the BLT Prime shed on Lexington Avenue at East 74th Street. Another into Cellini on East 54th. BLT dismantled its shanty and Cellini will soon do so. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
But it shouldn’t take potentially deadly accidents to tell us what should be obvious: Dining rooms don’t belong in the middle of streets — no matter how “key” they are to owners’ profits.
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