For restaurants and the New Yorkers who love them, the outdoor cafes that have sprung up across the city over the past two weeks have been one of the few bright spots in a grim season.
Under an emergency program that began on June 22, about 6,800 establishments have been authorized to serve food and drinks at outdoor tables, turning patches of sidewalks and streets into cheerfully ragtag villages of patio umbrellas, beach canopies, outdoor fans and potted palm trees.
Another 2.6 miles of roadway, including several blocks along some of the city’s best-known restaurant rows, will be available for eating and drinking from Friday afternoons until Sunday nights starting this weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday. Under the plan, an extension of the city’s Open Streets program, portions of 22 commercial strips in every borough will be closed to driving but open for dining.
“Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Little Italy — Mulberry Street — think about what is possible if we make them into centerpieces of outdoor dining,” Mr. de Blasio said.
Many restaurateurs were quick to build street and sidewalk seating areas as soon as it was allowed. But some of the earliest adapters have almost immediately run afoul of the city Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the temporary outdoor cafes.
The department’s first set of guidelines permitted outdoor seating areas on streets with one or two lanes of traffic, to be set off by “stanchions, barricades or planters, spaced at maximum 5 feet apart.” Late last week, though, some new requirements appeared, including one that has caused problems for many owners: All barriers, on any kind of street, have to be at least 18 inches thick.
Julie Reiner, who owns two bars on Smith Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, said that on Monday, an inspector from the department told her that the enclosures she had built around the bars, Leyenda and Clover Club, did not meet city standards.
This surprised her. She had printed the specifications on the department’s website and handed them to her contractor, who followed them to the letter, she said. He fashioned matching barriers for her bars and two other restaurants on the street out of wooden garden trellises anchored by paint buckets filled with cement.
The inspector informed Ms. Reiner that her breezy latticework barriers were too thin; they had to be at least 18 inches thick. She was given 24 hours to change them.
“My contractor needed to fix four places on the block in 24 hours,” Ms. Reiner said. The cost to each restaurant of taking apart the original barriers and building new planters was $1,000, or about three-quarters of its average nightly revenue.
Losing money because the city changed the guidelines “is really infuriating after all this,” she said.
In a statement, the Department of Transportation said: “We’ve worked closely with the industry and city agencies to find processes that put small businesses back to work and kept New Yorkers safe. This program is a brand-new arrangement, enacted at an unprecedented pace, and restaurants have been generous with their patience. Our adjustments to Open Restaurants have been to make sure this program works safely for everyone.”
Interpretations of the department’s guidelines have varied. An informal tour of neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan this week turned up a wide array of materials used to set off seating, from heavy plastic Jersey barriers to colored tape.
Some owners say they lost revenue, too. On Sunday, inspectors handed out cease-and-desist orders to an undisclosed number of restaurants, forcing them to shut down until they brought their seating areas into compliance with the new standards.
In the East Village, the sandwich shop Foxface and the dusty nautical bar that adjoins it, the William Barnacle Tavern, had surrounded their in-street dining zone with metal barricades of the kind used to control crowds. On Sunday, an inspector informed an owner of Foxface, Ori Kushnir, that he would have to close until he came up with new, compliant barricades.
Mr. Kushnir lost two days of business, he said, in addition to the more than $3,000 he had to spend on new, 18-inch-deep planters. “Anybody who tried to do the right thing the first time, and is trying to do the right thing now, is spending thousands of dollars on this,” he said.
Restaurateurs say they have also heard mixed messages about whether they can seat customers in parking spaces that are cut off from the sidewalk by a bike lane, known as floating parking spaces. The answer is yes, according to the Department of Transportation. Some restaurateurs say they were told otherwise by inspectors.
Frank Prisinzano, the chef and owner of three Italian restaurants in the East Village and Lower East Side, said he hopes he misunderstood the inspector who showed up last weekend. “I spent close to $25,000 on all three restaurants,” Mr. Prisinzano said. “I wanted to do it right.”
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 6, 2020
Why are bars linked to outbreaks?
- Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
While he waits to hear from the city, he said he would continue to seat customers in the floating parking spaces outside Lil’ Frankie’s on Second Avenue. “It really is helping,” he said.
Indoor dining, which had been scheduled to return on July 6, was put off indefinitely this week as other cities that had allowed restaurants to reopen began to see alarming surges in new Covid-19 cases. Noting that the delay would hurt the hospitality business, Mr. de Blasio said Thursday that one goal of handing the streets over to diners was to “give maximum options to restaurants and their employees.”
Mr. Prisinzano has little interest in reopening his dining rooms. “I don’t even want the indoors,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable seating people indoors. As long as we can put people outdoors, we can get through the summer.”