Lithuania's capital is opening streets and other public spaces for restaurant seating and New York City might consider a similar approach.

By Jelisa Castrodale
April 29, 2020
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Earlier this week, bars, restaurants, and retailers in Lithuania started the slow process of reopening, and business owners and customers will start the equally slow process of adapting to what so-called normal life might look like now. The country's health ministry has a long list of safety measures that everyone must follow, including limits on the number of customers that can enter a shop at the same time, mandatory masks for everyone who's out in public, and ensuring that restaurant tables are at least six feet apart.

According to The Guardian, that last one might be a challenge for the tiny restaurants that line the already narrow streets of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. But the mayor of Vilnius has proposed a solution, which involves opening up many of the city's public spaces for al fresco dining, allowing restaurants to have 'outdoor cafes' in parks and in the main square. Eighteen public areas have already been designated for restaurants to use, and additional spaces are expected to become available in the coming months.

"Plazas, squares, streets—nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” mayor Remigijus Šimašius said, a move that will allow the city's eateries to "open up, work, retain jobs, and keep Vilnius alive."

The Lithuanian Association of Hotels and Restaurants said that this offer "came just in time." At least 160 restaurants have already requested to move their tables outside and, of course, that number will undoubtedly increase as the weather improves and the temperatures warm up.

There's a possibility that New York City might turn its focus to outdoor dining options too. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he will open 40 miles of streets in May to pedestrians and cyclists, and the city might have as many as 100 miles of car-free streets in the near future. This plan also involves adding temporary bike lanes and expanding sidewalks to allow for greater social distancing by pedestrians.

During de Blasio's press conference, he was asked whether restaurants might be permitted to add seating on the streets or sidewalks. According to Eater, the mayor said that his administration had "thought about it" and had "begun discussions," adding that there "could be advantages" by allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor dining areas. (The New York City Hospitality Alliance confirmed to the outlet that their organization has already approached the mayor's office with this idea and that it was advocating for ways restaurants and bars could "better utilize outdoor space" going forward.)

The City Council is also reportedly considering legislation that would allow restaurants to have sidewalk seating without purchasing a two-year Sidewalk Cafe License. Under the proposal, all licensing fees would be waived through the end of the year, and the city would refund any restaurant or cafe that had already paid to apply for or renew its license.

Perhaps it's still to early to imagine what restaurants might look like in the upcoming weeks or months—but sitting outside, feeling the still-warm evening sun and enjoying dinner out would be a nice thing to look forward to.