New York City experienced an unseasonable blast of late summer-like weather near the beginning of November, coinciding with widespread celebration over the results of the presidential election. It was a blissful open-air outlet for New Yorkers, but just a brief reprieve before we all have to face the reality of winter during COVID-19, a situation no one is truly prepared for—least of all the restaurants that are scrambling to retain customers even as indoor dining seems perilously close to ending.
“We’ve been trying to come up with ways to do outdoor dining once it gets cold…but I don’t know,” said Chef Kyungmin “Kay” Hyun, the owner of Mokyo on St. Marks and Thursday Kitchen on East 9th Street. A fire hydrant sits in front of her restaurant, so she can’t do any curbside dining, just two-tops lined up on the narrow sidewalk. “Maybe propane heaters on the weekend, when the street is closed to cars? Maybe give out blankets? Would anyone want to use communal blankets though?”
Patrick Cournot, one of the partners at Kindred + Ruffian on the Lower East Side, said they never bothered to set up for indoor dining: “That shit’s crazy, I don’t know why anyone was doing it, it’s also not safe or good for the city,” he said.
“Our kitchen is two inches away from the diners,” added Steven Shockley, the chef de cuisine at Ruffian. “That’s not safe for our staff, that’s not safe for our guests. It also seems like you’re rolling the dice for other people.” Instead, they’re focused on trying to prepare their customers for the reality of winter dining.
“We’re going to transition into what we call ‘base camp,’ getting people used to the idea that it is cold outside so you should wear a coat, bring your gloves,” Shockley said. “We’re doing high altitude wines, high altitude foods. We’re still trying to have fun with it, pitch it not that you have to eat outside, but you get to eat outside. Keeping it fun.” He added that they were thinking of it as “a specifically New York kind of innovation.”
Patrick Purvine, the bartender at The Grafton in the East Village, said they had a similar message for customers: “We’re just trying to tell our regulars, think of it like you’re actually going out to tailgate, so dress appropriately,” he told Gothamist. “I also know these owners, I don’t think they’re pushing too hard to be open all winter long. Just imagine, once we get snow here, once a plow comes through, any of these outdoor dining spots aren’t going to be quite as pretty.”
Outdoor dining has been allowed in NYC since the city entered Phase 2 back in late June. Over 10,700 restaurants have opted-in to the Open Restaurants program, which includes at least 87 combination Open Restaurants/Open Street locations. It’s proven to be one of the few lifelines for the restaurant industry during this devastating period; because of that, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at the end of September that outdoor dining would be made permanent and year-round.
The biggest adjustment from that announcement came to rules about how restaurants could expand outdoors in winter, particularly with outdoor enclosures and heating lamps. If you’ve walked around the city at all in the last month, then you’ve seen the explosion in curbside and sidewalk structures, some of which have sparked confusion about what is considered outdoor dining, what is considered enclosed outdoor dining (tents) and what is simply curbside indoor dining in a temporary structure (which could allow a higher capacity for indoor dining at a restaurant).
“We’re building an enclosure, or more like an overhang, with heaters in the roof, but right now the lawyer is bringing the plans to the city for it to be approved,” said an employee at La Esquina on the Upper East Side who asked not to be named. “You can’t get any information out of them otherwise. There’s no checklist when the inspectors come around, they just fixate on one thing like the chairs and then leave. I don’t think they even know what’s up.”
The city says that if an outdoor setup is over half enclosed, it will be treated the same as indoor dining: “In partial tent enclosures, at least 50% of the tent’s side wall surface area must remain open and electrical heaters are allowed. In full tent enclosures, the tent’s side walls may be closed but occupancy limitations will be capped at 25% of capacity, and indoor dining guidelines must be followed.” As long as more than half the area is open, they can operate under outdoor dining rules, which are much more permissive.
Kimika, located on Kenmare Street in Nolita, had a very successful experience expanding onto the sidewalk over the summer. But now, manager David Choi says they’re trying to figure out how that translates in winter. “We’ve put an insulated roof over our outdoors tables, and we’ll do plexiglass walls next,” he said. “Electric heaters are on backorder, but when they come we’ll put them in our outdoor space, along with electric lights. It’ll be smaller than it is now, but we’re looking to really fortify the outside space, while making sure it’s properly ventilated and following all official rules. That’s the real challenge, to find the balance between keeping everyone safe and making sure our guests are comfortable. Also, the fact that no one knows what the winter will be like, in terms of weather, or indoor dining.”
Then there are the individual dining bubbles, faux greenhouses and plastic tents, which have gotten popular at places such as Lucciola, Café du Soleil, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club and Suprema Provisions. They’ve also caused a lot of confusion for passersby who can’t tell if they are innovative or even less safe than other outdoor enclosures.
A recent study found that during the first months of the pandemic, 80% of new coronavirus infections in the U.S. came from restaurants, gyms, cafes and other crowded indoor venues—which is why experts say it’s so important for restaurants to limit how much they mimic those circumstances in their outdoor areas.
“The challenge with all of this is we want to make outdoor dining more comfortable during colder months, but we want to be careful that we don’t recreate the experience of indoor dining—by approximating the experience of indoor dining, we don’t want to create the environment that is favorable for virus transmission,” Columbia University Medical Center’s Dr. Patrick Kachur, who previously worked for the CDC, told Gothamist.
Mayoral spokesperson Mitch Schwartz confirms these enclosures are allowed, since they’re supposed to be used for one party at a time (most can only fit two to four people, though some can squeeze in as many as six). At Cafe du Soleil and Suprema, those bubbles are sanitized after each use, which helps with surfaces only; at Lucciola, they are only used by one party per night.
Dr. Kachur says there’s a trade-off happening here: on the one hand, the bubbles may be more safe than indoor dining because “most people would be contained with the group of diners that they came to the restaurant with, whereas with indoor settings you’re also in the same environment and exchanging air with people at neighboring tables, even if those tables are spaced out.” While the bubble-like structures make for warmer and more comfortable curbside dining, they are also more sealed off as a result.
And he is even more worried about the larger outdoor structures and tents which encase multiple parties in the same enclosure. “There’s not going to be a good way to engineer or standardize the recommendations for these improvised structures,” he said. “Sooner or later, if this phenomenon continues and it turns out it’s an important contributor to transmission, we will see a superspreader event in a structure that is completely sealed up, just like at the start of the year we saw cases in China of transmission in restaurant environments, and in Korea there was transmission in indoor gym settings. If it’s closed in on all four sides and multiple parties inside, sooner or later there’s gonna be transmission opportunity.”
One thing Kachur isn’t as worried about: the idea of people sharing or bringing blankets to restaurants, which he said provides a relatively small risk of transmission as long as people or places wash blankets properly after every use. “We know the virus can exist on surfaces, there’s a theoretical risk of contaminated surfaces being a source of infection, but it’s kind of surprising we haven’t documented that in more cases, which suggests strongly that touching and surface contact isn’t a big part of how this virus transmits,” he explained. “The other reason blankets may be less concerning than other surfaces is that the virus lives longer on impermeable surfaces like metal and plastic than it does on cloth and paper.”
There’s already a sense that some places in the city have started advertising a BYOB (Bring Your Own Blanket) policy; for example, East Village tapas spot Ladybird had a chalkboard out front recently declaring it was “BYOBlanket,” though they also had blankets to offer guests if needed.
Many places are also seeking out propane and electric heaters to warm things up outside, with varying levels of difficulty obtaining them. The fact the city is now allowing restaurant to use propane heaters was a big deal—experts say they are far more accessible and affordable for businesses than hard line natural gas. But because the city waited until the end of September to legalize them, they have become harder to procure quickly, and prices have shot up.
And then there’s the difficulty of dealing with the Department of Transportation—who have beefed up the safety requirements for outdoor dining setups—and the FDNY, who set the regulations for propane use and are in charge of permitting for them as well.
“The FDNY was tasked with regulating it, they took over a month to throw together study material for the license and its full of errors and contradictions and buried information,” said Tara McManus, a pyrotechnics expert. Her company, Combustion Entertainment, has pivoted in recent months to propane heater rentals and legal assistance to restaurateurs trying to filed permits and train employees to get the necessary propane license to operate the heaters. “It seems obvious they are making it as difficult as possible to stop restaurants from using them. There are so many distance requirements for the heaters that it’s impossible to have a propane heater at all.”
McManus offered a few examples of how excessively complicated the instructions about usage are currently: “For instance they can’t be on the street, only the sidewalk, but it has to be 5′ from the building—10′ if its a wooden building—and it has to be 8′ from the curb so they expect the sidewalk to be 14′-18′ or more in depth. Backyards can’t have the tall heaters if you have to pass through the venue to get out back, which is almost all restaurants with back patios. Another impossible restriction is that the area has to be uncovered, meaning no shade cloth, no enclosure structure, no awning, not even an umbrella. The heater must be 5′ away from any such structure.”
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said that restaurant owners are desperate to do whatever they can to create inviting conditions this winter, but the reality is that no one knows if that’ll be enough when the weather gets cold. “Outdoor dining with a blanket or heaters are good when it’s in the 40s or 50s, but when you drop below freezing, I don’t know how many people are going to be eating outdoors, the food will just get cold quickly,” he said. “Outdoor dining has been incredibly important, and we certainly hope it’ll play a role throughout the colder months, but it is Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It’s just not the solution to save restaurants. And keep in mind that more than 50% of restaurants in the city don’t even have outdoor dining.”
With it looking more and more likely that indoor dining will be paused in the coming weeks, restaurateurs say its imperative that federal legislation be passed to aid restaurants and bars during this crisis to enable them to close down briefly without having to lose their businesses. The bill in question—which would create a $120 billion fund to aid small and locally-owned restaurants—was already passed by Congress, but now languishes in limbo because Donald Trump and Senate Republicans have refused to resume talks on any stimulus bills.
For now, restaurants will do what they can to continue. One night recently at Oceans New York in Gramercy, they were testing out their brand new propane heaters, eight of which had arrived that day. When asked how long he thought outdoor dining could last, even with heat lamps, a manager said, “Well I guess we’re just going to find out how tough New Yorkers really are.”
Additional reporting by Gwynne Hogan