Outdoor dining has proliferated in parts of New York City where it had once been limited or nonexistent — including areas where people of color or low-income households make up the majority of the population, a new report has found.
The report, which was shared exclusively with Gothamist, comes from NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and shows that outdoor dining has spread like wildfire throughout the city since its launch in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, particularly in areas outside of Manhattan and community districts where most residents are people of color.
The number of outdoor dining locations rose to more than 12,000 sites identified by the Department of Transportation as part of the city's Open Restaurants program, according to the report. That’s compared to roughly 1,000 licensees and restaurants who were undergoing the permit application process under the pre-pandemic sidewalk cafe program as of June 2020.
That’s a twelvefold explosion since previous Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration launched the Open Restaurants program in late June 2020 — giving a green light to outdoor dining beyond the familiar reaches of Manhattan.
“Our report highlights the remarkable growth in communities of color, in communities outside Manhattan, and we now have seen a surge in communities which otherwise had no outdoor dining, and this has been because the regulations have been basically pushed aside,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU who co-authored the report.
More than half of restaurants offering outdoor dining in July 2022 were in the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn, per the authors’ findings.
The report says 41% of the city’s outdoor dining offerings were in community districts where the majority of residents were people of color — roughly double the share under the previous program until June 2020.
Nearly a third of outdoor dining operations were also in community districts where the median household income was $60,000 or less. Prior to the pandemic-era program, 17% of outdoor dining sites had been in those districts. And the 17 districts that previously had no outdoor dining under the city’s pre-pandemic program now have businesses participating in the Open Restaurants program.
The city’s pre-pandemic program for authorizing outdoor dining sites had long been criticized by restaurant owners and industry advocates as being out of reach for many businesses, particularly in the outer boroughs.
“The pre-pandemic sidewalk café laws were antiquated and just totally out of date, and really exclusive for so many small restaurants throughout the five boroughs that were unable to have outdoor dining previously — because they were either not zoned for it or because the bureaucracy and the cost to participate were essentially prohibitive to them,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
That all changed when the de Blasio administration launched the outdoor dining program as a lifeline to an industry battered by lockdowns in the early months of 2020. The city is in the midst of developing a permanent program, but has faced litigation that Mayor Eric Adams said has stalled its efforts.
Breeana Mulligan, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, said the Council would review the NYU report.
“We are continuing to work with all stakeholders to arrive at a bill that creates a permanent outdoor dining program and strikes the right balance of supporting small businesses and addressing neighborhood needs,” Mulligan said in a statement.
Vin Barone, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, said the agency “is committed to equity in all our work, and this report highlights just how important this program has been in helping expand outdoor dining to create more vibrant streets in communities that have never had this opportunity.”
The Council is working on legislation that would give the emergency outdoor dining program a permanent framework that officials said will build toward the city’s economic recovery instead of falling back on the shortcomings of the pre-pandemic program. The Council’s draft legislation includes a restriction that would ban the operation of roadway cafes from Nov. 1 through March 31, making some outdoor dining sites seasonal, which several restaurant owners have criticized.
The report insists a year-round program for all forms of outdoor dining is critical.
“Neighborhoods unable to use sidewalk space for outdoor dining (e.g., those with narrow sidewalks, like much of Chinatown) stand to be de facto excluded from outdoor dining entirely,” the report reads. “Banning roadway cafes for half of the year will serve to re-establish some of the old inequalities present under the old Sidewalk Café program.”
For Charlotta Janssen, the owner of Chez Oskar in Bed-Stuy, bringing outdoor dining to areas that previously had few options or none at all is “correcting a long, long wrong.”
Zoning restrictions in Janssen’s area prior to the city’s pandemic program had gotten in the way of her earlier hopes of setting up tables and chairs outside, where diners could enjoy the fresh air.
“You want people to get jobs back. You want people to thrive. You have to give them that space that they can. And that’s all we ask for. We’re not asking for handouts. We’re just asking for the opportunity to thrive again, and to survive,” Janssen said. “That’s all we’re asking for.”
The report deems a seasonal arrangement for roadside cafes impractical for establishments with little space, which will need to pay for storage for several months.
“This idea of keeping it seasonal represents a real elitist, narrow-minded effort to impose standards of climate, which we don’t know – some people are very comfortable eating outdoors in 40 degree weather,” Moss said. “Some people are not.”