Outdoor dining spaces that ballooned over the last two years, and became a lifeline for innumerable restaurants during COVID, are in danger of retracting.
Whether they were called streeteries, parklets, expanded outdoor dining or open restaurant programs, these measures, with their flexible dining rules in cities and suburbs across the country, let many try al fresco in areas and during months they never would have considered. Some used the new opportunities to survive. Others thrived.
But as COVID has slowed and become manageable, many municipalities are ending, amending or re-evaluating these programs with final decisions expected to come down this spring. In some areas, the negotiations are sparking fights between businesses, generating complaints from citizens, and requiring some creative cooperation between restaurateurs and lawmakers.
“It’s happening in New York, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, pretty much every one of the major markets,” says Mike Whatley, the National Restaurant Association’s vice president for state affairs and grassroots advocacy.
While restaurant advocates know they can’t keep entire streets closed forever, Whatley says they’re working to retain some of the COVID-era flexibility “while streamlining the permitting process” for permanent outdoor dining programs.
While every municipality has its unique factors, some of the most common issues include fees, design, licenses, parking spaces, length of the season, traffic and infrastructure.
And some restaurant communities face more opposition than others. In New York, for example, a group of 35 citizens last year sued to shut down the Open Restaurants program, citing vermin, noise, garbage, and blocked sidewalks and streets. Last fall, however, the New York Supreme Court struck down the suit, to the delight of Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Planning officials, who tweeted: “It’s now full-speed ahead for putting into place permanent design rules to keep this great program thriving for New Yorkers. The future of outdoor dining is looking bright.”
Mayor Adams called the ruling “great news for New York City’s comeback,” but he’s been quick to crack down on abandoned outdoor dining sheds, too.
Al fresco dining also found an ally in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who last fall proposed a permanent Expanded Outdoor Dining program. It would allow restaurants to “operate in curb lanes where the adjacent sidewalk is not wide enough to accommodate a sidewalk cafe. Full street closures would continue to be allowed for groups of three or more businesses.”
In early January the proposal was still stuck in the City Council’s transportation committee, where some members expressed concerns about fairness to other businesses on the barricaded blocks, bike lane blockage and accessibility for strollers and people with disabilities.
Outside Chicago, in suburban Elmhurst, Illinois, the issue of extending its COVID-era “parklet” program, allowing tables in parking spots in front of the restaurant, got heated. On a local Facebook page, jewelry business owner Kurt Hill said, “The city cannot keep doing things that benefit certain businesses and is detrimental to so many more.”
In the end, Elmhurst officials struck a compromise, reducing the “parklet” season to just Memorial Day through Labor Day, and boosting fees to use two parking spaces for dining from $1,000 to $2,500.
“We were trying to find a balance between the different types of businesses in our downtown,” says Elmhurst Assistant City manager Mike Kopp. While the parklet program brings more people to the central district, it also blocks parking spots all day, even at times the restaurants aren’t open, which irks nearby retailers.
“Both sides would have liked more, but when it was all said and done, I think both were pleased with the compromise,” Kopp said.
In Dallas, the city is still gathering comments on its two-and-half-year pilot called Dallas Street Seats, scheduled to run through July 2023, allowing restaurants to use two parking spots in front of their establishment. So far, special events officials in the city say it’s working.
In Boston last summer, restaurants in the North End had to pay a controversial $7,500 fee or secure a hardship waiver to continue serving on the closed streets of the North End. Meanwhile, those with a patio license can continue to serve until March, while city officials are “still evaluating the permanent program process and taking steps to streamline it.”
While most rules are getting hammered out on a municipal level, last year the Connecticut Restaurant Association lobbied state lawmakers to extend their program statewide through spring 2023 as well.
“Relaxing the rules on outdoor dining has enabled many restaurants across Connecticut to safely serve their customers and support their continued operations during the pandemic,” Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said. “So many restaurants are locally-owned small businesses, and this is one way we can help in their economic recovery.”
After years of viewing outdoor dining as an unnecessarily complicated option, many restaurants now see it as a nice addition – and even an essential tool for unpredictable times. Whatley hopes those gains are not lost after the pandemic recedes.
“Let’s not go back to a situation where it was so cumbersome to do outdoor dining that no one wanted to do it, or it took years and attorneys and all sorts of fun things to figure it out,” Whatley says. “Let’s keep it flexible and make sure (officials are) permitting in a way that makes sense for everyone.”
HOW TO SAVE YOUR SPACE
Because so many communities are hammering out the new rules this spring, and every municipality has its own concerns on expanded outdoor dining, Mike Whatley of the National Restaurant Association recommends studying the local landscape and then following these three suggestions:
- Work with your state Restaurant Association to understand the current state of play when it comes to regulation.
- Talk to local lawmakers and the public about why outdoor dining has been so important.
- Manage outdoor dining in a responsible and well-maintained way. Nobody wants to have structures that aren’t well-maintained or cause a rodent issue. “It has to be done cleanly, and in a way that is safe and works for everyone in restaurants, because we want to be a part of that conversation in terms of what does that look like going forward,” Whatley says.