The New York City Council held a hearing on Feb. 8 on whether to make outdoor sidewalk dining, which was a temporary measure during the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic, a permanent fixture in the city’s dining scene.
Outdoor dining sheds were built by many NYC restaurant owners to help blunt the economic impact of the virus as they struggled to survive the government-mandated lockdowns.
The outdoor sheds were first permitted by the city on a temporary basis under an “Open Restaurants” initiative at the height of the pandemic and after severe capacity restrictions were imposed.
The NYC Department of Transportation (DoT) is in charge of overseeing the temporary outdoor dining facilities.
Restaurateurs set up tens of thousands of makeshift structures of plywood and plastic sheeting, with some including lighting and space heaters that became more elaborate as the pandemic went on.
Many sheds are still frequently used to this day by the unvaccinated who are barred from dining inside, those worried about social distancing, or those who enjoy eating outdoors.
The proposed plan, which has the support of Mayor Eric Adams and the New York Hospitality Alliance, an industry association, is to make the thousands of dining sheds outside of restaurants and bars permanent.
While many New Yorkers have applauded the idea, some residents oppose it and want a return to normalcy on their streets.
Many opponents of the outdoor dining plan complain about unsanitary sidewalk conditions caused by food trash attracting large numbers of rats, increased noise traffic, large crowds of drunken loiterers at odd hours in the morning, and a reduced number of already hard to find parking spaces.
Other residents like Manuel Albino, a lifelong NYC East Village resident and a regular diner, have mixed feelings about the program.
“The outdoor dining program helped many small restaurants during the pandemic,” Albino said, adding that while he doesn’t think it should be eliminated completely, “the program should be curtailed and more defined as to placement, construction, maintenance, and removal.”
“They should only be authorized from April to October,” he said.
The Uniformed Firefighters Association, the FDNY union, said some sheds act as obstructions that delay or hinder their emergency response and prevent them from safely raising ladders to windows.
The Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, an alliance of local businesses and residents, held a “Chuck the Sheds” anti-shed rally over the weekend.
Julie Schipper, the head of the DoT’s Open Restaurants Program, said at the City Council hearing that she is in favor of removing the makeshift structures after the pandemic eases.
“We don’t envision sheds in the permanent program. We are not planning for that,” Schipper said.
“What would be in the roadway [are] barriers and tents or umbrellas, but not these full houses that you’re seeing in the street.”
The 51-member City Council will vote on the bill at a later date if it makes it through a committee vote.
City officials and the restaurant industry praised the street shed initiative for saving thousands of restaurants from closing permanently and enabling tens of thousands of workers to keep their jobs.
More than 12,000 restaurants and bars across New York took part in the program, and 360 streets have been shut down to vehicles to expand space for outdoor restaurant dining.
The bill’s sponsor, City Councilwoman Marjorie Velazquez (D-The Bronx), who chairs the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, said “beyond its positive economic impact, outdoor dining reimagined what the city could do with our streets.”
She praised the temporary program for saving more than 100,000 jobs citywide, but acknowledged “some unintended negative consequences,” including “excessive noise” and more “trash and vermin.”
Some of the bill’s opponents questioned at the City Council hearing whether the DoT has the capacity to oversee a permanent program, while others are concerned about the thousands of complaints lodged against certain restaurants by their constituents.
Councilman Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn), who opposes the bill, called the outdoor eateries “shantytown sheds” and said that restaurant owners have “been able to increase the size of their space, not pay real property taxes on it, not pay rent on it, and have the ability to get free space courtesy of New York City.”
The council has yet to schedule a vote on the bill, which will first have to pass through the zoning and franchises committees before a full vote.
Reuters contributed to this report.