Outdoor seating could reappear as soon as June 22. Here’s what it may look like.

By Mike Pomranz
June 05, 2020
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Scientists contend that COVID-19 is less likely to spread outdoors than in confined spaces. So when it comes to New York City restaurants reopening for seated service, the question isn’t whether outdoor seating will be a major component, but rather how the new policies will be implemented. Yesterday, New Yorkers got a first glimpse at the answer.

On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that restaurants in the state could offer outdoor dining upon reaching Phase Two of the coronavirus reopening plan, pending approval of local authorities. So, the next day, Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined what those guidelines would look like in New York City. Restaurants will still have to adhere to the state’s policies—which include tables being placed six-feet apart and masks for staff and customers who aren’t seated—but the city has proposed additional changes to make providing outdoor seating easier.

Alena Kravchenko / Getty Images

“We have a new initiative—‘Open Restaurants’—that will focus on what it takes to make outdoor seating work,” de Blasio said during yesterday’s press conference. “We will provide a massive expansion of curbside seating, a big expansion of Open Streets. We’ll do what it takes to help this key part of life in New York City […] to come back.”

Graphics supporting this part of the briefing broke the plan down into three key bullet points. First, a “simplified sidewalk seating process” supported by the Department of Transportation and Department of Consumer Affairs. Second, a new curbside seating policy that will “allow restaurants to convert adjacent parking spots into more seating for the first time with “no permit needed." And finally, increased street closures to “allow restaurants to create seating areas in Open Streets” and “identify new Open Streets on commercial strips with [a] high volume of restaurants.”

NYC’s Open Streets initiative temporarily closes streets to traffic during daytime hours and opens them up for pedestrian and cyclists to use while maintaining social distancing. Initially, 40 miles of streets in the city were designated as Open Streets with a plan to expand that number to 100 miles.

Importantly, however, the mayor said his office “will provide a plan,” so apparently many of the details are still being hammered out.

Speaking at a City Council hearing, Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg elaborated on what the mayor’s office is thinking, according to Eater NY, proposing that the sidewalk café permit process be streamlined by not requiring restaurant to get approval from community boards.

“We want to get this up and going in time for Phase Two, which is coming in a matter of weeks,” she was quoted as saying. “We’ve heard the plea and from the industry that this not be a heavy-handed city process.” She also reportedly clarified that backyard seating would not be allowed until safety concerns around walking through restaurants was addressed.

Adding to the idea of simplicity, Trottenberg was also quoted as saying, “We would like to strive for a model where enforcement can be a light touch.”

New York City is hoping to enter Phase One on June 8, which would make the city eligible to Phase Two starting on June 22, assuming everything continues according to plan.