By Renée Roden
At the Community Board 7 Business and Consumer Issues Committee meeting on July 8, the committee discussed the current safety hazards posed to communities by restaurant seating on sidewalks and streets. The committee deliberated as well on how to respond to the Department of Transportation’s Open Restaurants Guidelines.
The Committee Co-Chairperson Linda Alexander moved to write a letter to the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT). She said she gets “apoplectic” when she thinks of the three months that DOT had to create guidelines for restaurants opening with outdoor seating, but did not roll out guidelines until 24 hours of the Phase II re-opening on June 22.
Josh Cohen pushed back on this letter-writing proposal and asked what the committee was hoping to accomplish with the letter, “What are we getting at? Just feeling better by saying how annoyed we are?” “Yes,” responded Alexander emphatically.
“There’s nothing to be gained by it,” protested Barbara Adler, “There’s no question that they’ve made a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes have already been made, but we need to move forward with them,” she continued.
Alexander noted that these safety measures come with a cost. “DOT could have started with their own barriers,” but they didn’t use them, and they refused to loan them to the restaurant owners. Substantial barriers cost a lot, and Alexander noted now is not the time for cash-strapped owners to shell out thousands of dollars for proper barriers.
Andrew Rigie says that the DOT also changed the guidelines on restaurants who had already begun building their outdoor spaces, and the letter the DOT sent to restaurant owners with updated guidelines implied that the restaurant owners would have their outdoor space privileges revoked and receive a fine. The confusion caused by the rollout of guidelines and the potential punishments has worried restaurant owners.
Alexander says that she was getting calls from local restaurant owners who were afraid of getting fined by the DOT. Rigie noted that the DOT has not issued any fines, but they are sending inspectors to restaurants, ensuring compliance to the standard to increase diners’ safety.
Rigie posed the question: “Are we asking for something specific in the letter? Or is the letter just to say, ‘you screwed up’?”
Committee member William Ortiz suggested the letter look to the future. He said we could write a letter “not only to the DOT, but anyone who could help build a ‘future checklist’ or best practices for business owners” in order to better deal with a future wave of the pandemic.
Restaurateur Alon Chadad offered a concrete suggestion for the letter. He noted the steep cost of building outdoor seating spaces. He said, “Sending something to the city should be to help the mom and pop shops who can’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars” to build the necessary safety barriers. Committee member Susan Schwartz noted that when the weather gets colder, there would be an additional cost of installing heat lamps. Rigie seconded Chabad’s suggestion of building a fund for small business owners who don’t have the capital to build out the infrastructure for outdoor dining.
Chadad ultimately questioned how much good these safety requirements could do on their own. If the cars are speeding past the restaurants, “I don’t know what the difference is between a five-inch barrier or eighteen-inch barrier,” he added.
“Why is the bike lane so sacrosanct?” asked Schwartz. She suggested that the bike lanes be repurposed for restaurants since servers put themselves at risk crossing the bike lanes to the outdoor seating. Schwartz apologized for what might be a “controversial statement,” “I know it sounds like I’m anti-bike, but I’m not.” CB7 president Mark Diller said that the DOT had considered switching the parking spaces and the bike lanes, so that the green strip would go around the outdoor dining space instead of through the servers’ path to the seating.
Doug Kleiman noted that the danger from bike lanes in the middle of restaurant traffic is a danger that goes both ways, “I was on a CitiBike last night going north on Amsterdam, and there were patrons who might have had…a few, and they walked right in front of me and didn’t even look, so I had to stop in my tracks. So it’s concerning”
The committee consensus landed on not writing a letter to DOT, since the DOT does not seem to be issuing fines to restaurants. And they decided not to ask for funds for mom and pop restaurants or for a lending program for barriers for small businesses.
Alexander said they had already asked the DOT for barriers for restaurants, and they were not able to lend them to restaurants since they’re “using a lot of their barriers to protect the statues.”