Eating indoors is safe — it’s time to end NYC’s ‘Open Restaurants’ eyesores

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Everybody knows that the city’s messy and undisciplined “Open Restaurants” outdoor-café program needs some serious revising. But here’s a better idea that nobody wants to hear: Let’s get rid of the whole enchilada.

With the pandemic in rapid retreat, and fewer people willing to freeze their patooties off in poorly heated “outdoor” eyesores that test the patience of diners and employees alike, we don’t need more alfresco-dining shanty towns.

Limit the sheds to the ones that are already up, demolish the little-used ones that provide shelter to drug dealers and vagrants, and be done with it.

Fair-weather alfresco sidewalk eating is a delightful part of city life. But the year-round, panicked exodus from normal dining rooms to “outdoor” tables that sometimes aren’t even truly outdoors is another story.

Despite a consensus among anti-car, “take back our streets” advocates to spread the sheds farther and wider, oodles more of them are not what our dining millions want or need.

Outdoor restaurant seating NYC
As COVID-19 is on the decline, fewer people are willing to freeze outside in the cold.
Christopher Sadowski

Since the coronavirus emergency spawned more than 10,000 new seating zones on sidewalks and in streets, Open Restaurants has been slammed over arbitrary “safety” rules, ramshackle structures that resemble Third World work huts and for obstructing pedestrians and auto traffic — to say nothing of keeping the neighbors up at night and feeding more rats than human beings.

In the guise of “improving” things, the city plans to expand the program and make it permanent by 2023. A City Council public hearing Feb. 8 will cover more issues regarding the proposal than there are options on a diner menu.

Some measures are worth putting into effect to expand sidewalk seating but not street sheds — especially one to remove notoriously arbitrary geographic restrictions from the zoning code. The old rules that specify where sidewalk seats are permitted are a game of inches on MacDougal Street while they ban some entire neighborhoods, like SoHo, from having any outdoor seats.

Playwright Pub NYC outdoor seating
Coronavirus emergency spawned more than 10,000 new seating zones on sidewalks and in streets.
Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Open Restaurants, launched under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, helped save thousands of restaurants and tens of thousands of jobs during indoor lockdowns. It also boosted morale after the dark spring of 2020.

But its time is past. Expansion would further warp a cityscape that’s increasingly a challenge to navigate.

The power-mad Department of Transportation — which has done more than an earthquake could to make surface transportation impossible with unchecked bike-lane proliferation and zany traffic-pattern alterations — has hijacked the restaurant industry’s and the New York City Hospitality Alliance’s well-meant campaign to give diners more outdoor options.

People walk past an outdoor dining area in Tribeca on February 11, 2021 in New York City.
People walk past an outdoor dining area in Tribeca on February 11, 2021 in New York City.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

The DOT inexplicably will have control over the revised program. Will it write the menus, too?

With the Omicron variant in fast retreat and mandatory vaccinations that make restaurants among the safest places to be, cold-weather outdoor dining lost its luster. It sure did for me after I endured frozen toes and food last winter.

I’m not alone. Not nearly as many people as last winter are choosing the tents anymore, even on less-frigid nights. A new Grub Street article found that most city restaurants the writer surveyed “didn’t even bother with the pretense of outdoor dining. Nobody is willing to freeze in order to eat a steak.”

 

New Yorkers can read the Department of Health data even if The New York Times prefers to emphasize the COVID-19 death toll among unvaccinated octogenarians in Minnesota.

It’s silly to eat outside over “safety” concerns, even among those who cling to the discredited notion that indoor dining is dangerous. The number of new cases in the city tumbled from more than 64,000 Jan. 2 to under 2,000 Feb. 1. Among the fully vaccinated, hospitalizations and deaths are trending toward zero.

No wonder I see so many fewer people choosing the uptown Second Avenue tents and outdoors at Balthazar and Tamarind Tribeca downtown than last winter, even after indoor dining was restored Feb. 14.

On New Year’s Eve, Orsay’s dining rooms were full. But not the restaurant’s dining tents in the street on both sides of its Lexington Avenue at 75th Street corner.

There are exceptions at the handful of places that built truly distinctive “outdoor” spaces at great cost. Customers love Fresco by Scotto’s charming “lemon grove” and velvet-curtained, cozy cabins at Cote Korean Steakhouse.

Let them stay! But we don’t need thousands more cheap imitators. It’s time to close the book on Open Restaurants.

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