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Restaurants press mayors to preserve outdoor dining

The National Restaurant Association has asked a coalition of civic leaders to maintain the concessions that allowed sidewalk and streetside structures to pop up during the pandemic.
Photograph: Shutterstock

With outdoor dining under fire in some cities, the National Restaurant Association warned the nation’s mayors Tuesday that thousands of restaurants will be forced to close if town halls drop the concessions that eased adoption of the service during the pandemic.

“We encourage local leaders to do everything in their power to assist restaurants in offering outdoor dining for as long as possible this winter,” Mike Whatley, the association’s VP of state affairs and grassroots advocacy, said in a letter to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The communication notes that the industry’s recovery from the pandemic has been set back by the recent spike in coronavirus infections from the delta variant. Research shows that 78% of the nation’s eating establishments have seen sales slow because of the surge, Whatley pointed out.

His letter also noted that outdoor dining accounts for at least 20% of sales for about two-thirds of all full-service restaurants.

When the pandemic prompted state and local governments to limit dining-room service, operators rigged up all sorts of structures to provide outdoor seating, which was typically exempted from the  capacity restrictions. Establishments erected structures ranging from crude huts to yurts, pyramids and plastic igloos, usually with the blessing of civic officials.  Permitting was eased, and many municipalities allowed the shelters to extend onto sidewalks and streets.

In New York City alone, an estimated 10,000 structures were built.

The plea to maintain accommodations for streetside dining comes as some cities are questioning the need for outdoor facilities now that dining rooms are back in full swing. Residents have griped about the noise and litter that’s generated, and car owners complain about the loss of parking spaces and the traffic bottlenecks that narrowed streets have created. Others have blasted restaurants for using the outdoor structures for storage instead of seating.

In New York, some community boards have voted to clear their areas of the added seating. The city also rebuffed restaurants' requests to permit the use of outdoor propane heaters, as it did in 2020, citing the danger of fires. Devices fueled by electricity or natural gas are still allowed. 

"This announcement is a blow to restaurants hoping to use propane heaters again as they’re still trying to recover from the pandemic," the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a trade group for restaurants, bars and nightclubs, said in announcing the decision Thursday morning.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that he’ll ask the New York Department of Transportation to check all 10,000 of the city’s outdoor dining facilities and verify they’re being used as intended.

“Go and talk to the owners of any place where they're not using it for outdoor dining,” the mayor said. “And tell them they have a matter of days to get it right or the site should be pulled back and opened up again for parking.

The restaurant association specifically asked the nation’s mayors to extend any suspension of the regulations that prevented sidewalk and streetside shelters from springing up before the pandemic. It also asked that the permitting process for the outdoor structures continue to be streamlined.

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