When the city’s outdoor dining program began in the summer of 2020, it was rightly celebrated as salvation — keeping restaurants in business after months of forced closure and delivering to us a lost and desperately needed sociality. As the world opened up, however slowly and hesitantly, the program lost its glow in various quarters — particularly residential neighborhoods, where the experience was typified by too much noise and garbage and a Malthusian growth in the rat community. Complaints were made; petitions were signed; lawsuits were filed. Then in August, in a gesture of apparent compromise to the dissenters, Mayor Eric Adams announced an initiative after eating outside one night. The city had torn down 24 abandoned dining sheds — “eyesores,” he called them — belonging to restaurants that had shut down.
The move was largely performative. There are 13,000 restaurants participating in the outdoor dining program — many with sheds that do not comply with the rules — which still operates under the auspices of an emergency order. The Adams administration has made returning the city to a pre-Covid vibrancy a central mission, but the prevalence of empty sheds and sidewalk tables — even on bright, mild winter days, when we might theoretically enjoy sitting down in a heavy sweater to a bowl of herby lentil soup — sends a countervailing message of a city that has yet to fully emerge from a ghostly recent past. A few weeks ago, I had breakfast at a curbside table at a cafe on Court Street; my friend and I and one other woman eating alone were the only people outside of a place that was packed indoors. Policy has not caught up to the realization that New Yorkers have stopped pretending that they are Dutch.
At the moment, the City Council and the mayor’s office are embroiled in long debates about how to forge a plan for outdoor dining to become permanent. All the various warring constituencies make that incredibly challenging. A bill in the Council would leave sidewalk dining a part of the landscape all year long, and on the streets, dining areas would be set up for seven months a year (from April to October).
The restaurant industry favors as much of this as possible all the time. Those undone by the disruption that outdoor restaurants have brought into their neighborhoods, and those who hate the privatization of public space more generally, oppose many aspects of the program, especially the sheds, which take up so much room, are often visually a drag and whose enclosures do nothing to facilitate interaction with pedestrian culture.
“I’m uptown having lunch with the ladies in red-bottomed shoes, and I’m downtown with activists in their Converse sneakers,” Diem Boyd who founded a Lower East Side neighborhood group, L.E.S. Dwellers, told me, “and they all want their city to be back to normal.” She has been fighting against the proliferation of sheds downtown for at least two years, having brought suit against the city for the infringements they brought to quality of life.
Cyclists and advocates for open streets have demonstrated very vocal support for the program out of the fear that if it disappears, the square footage will be given over to parking spaces. Drivers, who have an increasingly hard time finding those spaces, hold a different view. Part of the problem is that the debate has remained entrenched in this binary — the fight for cars versus the fight for setting up bistro tables on the street — when it ought to be broader and more creative.
Outdoor dining could be scaled back without capitulating to car owners at all. The space could be given over to pedestrian plazas, for example, or even to the lidded garbage bins the city has been considering as a way to deal with the rodent problem. The city could get rid of sheds entirely and make outdoor licenses available to restaurants on a rotating basis, so there would always be options for the immunocompromised as well as the eternally hardy, but not every restaurant that wanted to participate in the program would be doing so at the same time. Some of this seems fairly simple.
Further slowing the progress of reaching any decision about the dining program is an argument over what city agency will run it. Currently, the program falls under the direction of the city’s Department of Transportation. But the agency has struggled to deal with what it already has in its remit. The department built just over four miles of protected bus lanes last year, far short of its goal. It is hard to know how it would successfully oversee thousands of restaurant sheds in addition. Until a permanent program is devised, it seems the status quo will remain.
The deflating paradox here is that all of this time-consuming civic wrestling is taking place at a moment when food insecurity is at near historic highs. On March 1, the additional federal aid meant to ease the hunger crisis that the pandemic inflicted on so many struggling families, expired in New York. The change lowers the average monthly allotment coming from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to $133 down from a Covid-era high of nearly twice as much. While the reversion does provide a slight increase over what recipients were getting before the pandemic, inflation has left the cost of groceries outpacing it. In New York City, where more than one-and-a-half million people rely on SNAP benefits, visits to food pantries were still up more than two-thirds last year compared to 2019 — and that was before the add-on went away.
The message in all of this is that while pandemic entitlements are ending for the most vulnerable, we will continue to painstakingly deliberate their value to the much better off. In December, it was reported that because of staff shortages at the city’s Department of Human Resources, the federal money allotted by Washington for SNAP was slow to get to people in need. It almost seems as if bureaucracy is less attentive to whether the poor can adequately feed themselves than over how much public space we ought to award restaurants that cater to people who will spend in a single evening what a SNAP recipient is expected to live on for weeks.