New York City Council Passes Bill to Make Outdoor Dining Permanent

Outdoor seating area of the Chelsea Market, located on 9th Avenue and 16th Street, in New York City. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News/TNS)

NEW YORK (New York Daily News/TNS) — Three years after the pandemic pushed thousands of New York City restaurants to start serving patrons on sidewalks and streets, the City Council on Thursday authorized a bill permanently weaving outdoor dining into the fabric of the city, while limiting the use of controversial street sheds.

The plan, drawn up in negotiations between the mayor’s office and the Council earlier this year, would allow outdoor dining on sidewalks year-round, and on city roads for eight months starting April 1 and lasting until Nov. 29.

Permanent dining structures would not be allowed to take up street space in the frosty winter months, disappointing some COVID-wary New Yorkers but gladdening others frustrated by the shoddy sheds’ impact on sanitation and rat proliferation.

The plan passed the Council on Thursday by a 34-to-11 vote, and is expected to be signed into law by Mayor Adams. The legislation largely mirrored a plan outlined by the Council and the mayor’s office in May after months of haggling.

The legislation’s passage came two days after Justice Arlene Bluth of Manhattan Supreme Court issued a preliminary order limiting the city’s continued use of the COVID emergency program that has allowed restaurants to serve diners outdoors since 2020.

Bluth wrote that the “initial justifications for outdoor dining (indoor mask requirements) no longer exist” and that the “public health concerns that led to the start of outdoor dining concluded many months ago.” The order came in a year-old case challenging the city’s outdoor dining regime.

Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city would appeal the order, but would stop accepting outdoor dining applications for now. Provisions of the new Council bill would take effect immediately with the mayor’s signature.

“The temporary program saved 100,000 jobs, kept restaurants afloat during the peak of the pandemic, and brought new energy and excitement to our streets and sidewalks,” Adams said in a statement. “But it wasn’t perfect — too many sheds were abandoned and left to rot.”

“This is our moment to transition to a permanent program that works for our restaurants, our workers, and our communities,” Adams added.

Under the Council bill, the city’s Transportation Department would oversee enforcement and licensing. Restaurants would pay a smaller fee than they did before COVID for the right to offer outdoor dining.

A four-year license for sidewalk seating would cost $1,050, according to the bill’s text. Roadway seating fees would vary by location; Manhattan restaurants would pay more.

Before COVID scrambled the city’s outdoor dining regulations and waived fees for restaurants, only a smattering of locations — disproportionately in Manhattan — served food outside, and costs were far higher. The permits could cost several thousands of dollars a year.

As COVID made indoor dining an impossibility in 2020, the reach of the city’s outdoor dining program spread widely across the five boroughs. Many restaurants have held onto al fresco dining as the pandemic has receded.

About 12,000 restaurants now participate in the outdoor dining program, up from around 1,000 before COVID, according to the Council.

Councilwoman Marjorie Velazquez, a Bronx Democrat and the lead sponsor of the bill, said outdoor dining in the darkest days of COVID offered New Yorkers “one of the only opportunities we had to connect with one another.”

“We learned a lot from this temporary program, and the biggest lesson is that, even three years later, New Yorkers love outdoor dining,” Velazquez said in a Consumer and Worker Protection Committee hearing on Thursday.

But Velazquez, who chairs the committee, promised the permanent program replacing the slapdash COVID-era regime would “strike the right balance between the needs of small businesses, residents and other stakeholders.”

The bill passed the committee by a 7 to 1 vote, sending the legislation to the rest of the Council. One member of the committee, Councilwoman Gale Brewer of Manhattan, expressed reservations about the steeper fees for restaurants in her borough, but still voted in favor.

Councilman Erik Bottcher, a Democrat who represents much of the west side of Manhattan, voted against the bill in the committee vote. He did not explain his vote or reply to requests for comment for this story.

The next step is a rulemaking process to determine what kind of structures would be allowed — another possible source of contention.

The bill’s passage in the Council came despite opposition from both parties — Republicans who said the program would eliminate too many parking spaces and pose a burden to drivers, and progressive Democrats who wanted to keep the dining sheds year-round.

Before its final legislative authorization, Councilman Lincoln Restler, a Brooklyn Democrat who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, said the plan would be “challenging and costly for businesses.”

But Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, a Queens Democrat, touted the permanent program as a victory for “all New Yorkers” that “incorporates lessons learned from the temporary program.”

Mayor Adams, who is not related to the speaker, argued in his statement that the new regime would “give restaurants the clarity they need” and “make New York City the best outdoor dining city in the world.”

“Outdoor dining,” the mayor declared, “is here to stay in New York City.”

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