While New York City is currently in the midst of unrolling a public engagement project to try to develop and regulate a new permanent outdoor dining program, those changes won't go into effect until 2023. In the meantime, restaurants are still trying to figure out how they're going to survive this winter, especially with fears of a new COVID surge and the omicron variant. And this is why the restaurant industry is hoping new legislation will give it the green light to use propane heaters outside once again.
Last winter, restaurants were allowed to temporarily use propane and electric heaters to keep diners warm whenever there was frigid weather; experts told Gothamist they are far more accessible and affordable for businesses than hard line natural gas, which often require burdensome upgrades, permits and inspections, and interruption of business operations. However, there were a lot of complications around installation and regulation, and the city ultimately decided this October to prohibit them going forward, citing fire safety.
Now, council member Keith Powers has introduced legislation that would reinstate the use of propane heaters this winter, as well as establish new safety precautions around the operation and handling of them. It would require propane heaters to be stored, handled, and used for outdoor dining only when "designed, installed, operated, and maintained in accordance with New York City’s fire safety code." Other specific safety precautions include adherence to building clearances, combustible materials, proximity to exits, and more.
“Throughout the pandemic, outdoor dining has been one of the most successful and innovative measures to support local restaurants and allow New Yorkers to safely socialize with one another. The use of propane heaters has played a quintessential role in that success, particularly during the colder months,” Powers said. “With winter on the horizon, COVID-19 cases increasing, and restaurants still desperately in need of support, this legislation will ensure the survival of local eateries, strengthen small businesses, and keep New Yorkers safe.”
The bill is supported by Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who wrote a letter with Powers to Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this month asking him to reconsider the ban.
"Many diners still prefer the safety of outdoor dining to dining indoors, and restaurants are still struggling financially to recover," they wrote. "According to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) there were no fires or injuries last winter from propane heater use, and the majority of restaurants operated the heaters safely and in compliance with the regulations."
Although the Adams administration is set to take over in January and could choose to prioritize the issue, Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told Gothamist the city shouldn't wait until next year.
"This is very important because so many restaurants are struggling to recover, and it’s important for customers who may prefer eating outside with the rise of the new variant, or if they’re prohibited from indoor dining because they’re not vaccinated," he told us. "The de Blasio administration could certainly reinstate a temporary allowance of propane heaters or the Adams administration could prioritize the policy when he takes office next year, but that’s still a month away and they can lose a lot of business during what restaurants hope will be a busy holiday season."
As of now, the city isn't planning to shift its policy. They say the issue is that propane is just too much of a fire safety risk, with one mayoral aide noting that when ignited, a single twenty-pound container of propane is powerful enough to destroy a building (this happened in Flushing in 2009).
Tucker Perkins, president and CEO of the Propane Education and Research Council, said in a statement that some of this is "unfounded safety concerns," saying their group has not been "presented with any evidence of safety or health issues associated with using propane heaters in New York or elsewhere. We would welcome a conversation with city officials to address this concern."
However, the FDNY told Gothamist that though there were no injuries related to propane heaters last winter, there were 1,273 violation orders issued (much of which involved unlawful storage of propane); 70 FDNY summonses were issued for illegal storage of propane containers and failure to update site plans; and around 1,000 propane containers were removed from restaurant premises citywide. They say that altogether, only 38 restaurants actually obtained a Fire Department permit to use propane-fueled heaters last year.
They add that in "some of the most egregious incidents, 20-pound containers of propane were found on roadways, concealed by planters and other objects designed to provide vehicle impact protection."
The city noted that it isn't planning to hand out any fines for businesses still using propane heaters until the new year; in the meantime, the FDNY will continue doing an educational campaign to make sure restaurants are aware of the new regulations.
“Outdoor dining has helped restaurants through existential challenges and made our city more vibrant," mayoral spokesperson Mitch Schwartz told Gothamist. "But making this program permanent means making it safe in the long term. The City will give restaurants all the tools they need to protect staff and diners while making a smooth transition away from propane.”
Also, the mayor has announced that the city will offer a $5,000 SBS reimbursement grant to any restaurant (whose revenue was under $1 million in 2019) that moves to electric or natural gas. They expect thousands will apply for the grants, and funds should start going out in January.