Permanent Open Restaurants Program Faces Mass Opposition From NYC Residents

July 27, 2021

Photo courtesy of Vestry

The Permanent Open Restaurant Program is currently undergoing Community Board reviews as the Department of Transportation begins to flesh out zoning restructurings and hear from residents on what should change and/or be added. 

The temporary Open Restaurants Program launched in June of 2020 as a “citywide multi-phase program to expand outdoor seating options for food establishments to promote open space, enhance social distancing, and help them rebound in these difficult economic times,” according to the DOT. The program gave businesses the option of applying to be an open restaurant individually, so that they could use the sidewalk or curb lane adjacent to their business, or as a group, with three or more businesses on a block to temporarily close the street. The program has proved extremely successful. It has saved over 11,000 businesses and over 100,000 jobs throughout the pandemic. Business owners and customers alike have found comfort in this safer dining experience; more available space has led to more reservations and revenue for both parties. 

Given its results, a permanent program was on the agenda from the start. The DOT unveiled plans for the permanent program at the start of this month, and the program will largely mirror the characteristics of the current program. It will, however, make a few changes including: making tables and chairs removable, stronger enforcement for adhering to clear path and siting criteria, requiring license agreements for sidewalks and roadway seating, and entrusting the DOT with administering and enforcing the program. 

As Community Boards across the city have begun debating the permanent program, a general consensus has formed amongst residents: they strongly oppose it. Although New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported the program over the course of the pandemic, residents are no longer on the bandwagon. Their opposition has taken over the meetings in a significant way, with residents constituting the majority of public attendees testifying, compared to a minority of business owners. Several petitions from groups opposing the program, such as the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, have garnered thousands of signatures over the past couple weeks. 

Their opposition is due to several key factors. Noise has been perhaps the most common; loud crowds, drunken customers, and loud music are amongst the most cited reasons why the permanent program should not be implemented in their eyes. Trash, waste, rodents, and pollution comes in second. Obstruction has been a common theme, whether it’s blocking sidewalks and bike lanes or entryways into neighboring businesses and residential spaces; additionally, the fire hazards and lack of access for emergency services is one of their main fighting points. Lack of compliance with the program’s requirements is another major point; many residents speak from personal experience about restaurants in their various neighborhoods that have illegally been operating an outdoor dining space. A lack of communication with the public has also been argued, especially in reference to a City Council hearing in which Community Boards were not invited, however the process currently in action should clear this up.

Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, the opposition has taken a firm stance that emergency orders should end with the end of the emergency. Many residents believe that the pandemic has essentially ended and, thus, programs that were implemented during the emergency period should neither be extended nor made permanent now; additionally, they believe that the restaurant industry has been rebounding strongly, as businesses are expanding and reopening, and foodservice workers will remain in the industry. Of course this point has been vehemently disputed as the hospitality industry is facing one of the worst labor shortages in history, sustained by former workers who no longer want to go back to their pre-pandemic positions or work in the industry altogether. 

As such, recent Community Board meetings on the topic have been tumultuous. A meeting earlier this week held by Manhattan Community Board 2 saw many of these complaints being voiced by angry residents. Before Manhattan Community Board 3 held its meeting earlier this month, several residents had even already launched a campaign calling for their neighbors to show up and oppose the program via flyers and emails. 

As it currently stands, the permanent program will not be launched in the very near future. Legislative proceedings are scheduled to commence in the fall and will continue until next fall. Applications will not be opened until winter of 2022, and the formal launch will happen sometime in early 2023. 

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