By Sami Chen
Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have chosen to isolate themselves at home. But as a result, thousands of restaurants are struggling to stay in business. In New York City, many of these restaurants were permanently shut down, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed and hitting the restaurant industry hard. However, Rockwell Group, an architecture and design firm, and the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an association created to represent and serve restaurants, created a new system called DineOut NYC built to meet the current health guidelines. Additionally, the City of New York established a year-round program called Open Restaurants that allows restaurants to have outdoor dining, and they have announced this on their official website.
Applying to the Open Restaurants program isn’t as simple as it seems. Restaurants must meet specific requirements in order to be eligible and agree to multiple conditions, such as making sure that the seating doesn’t take up too much space on the road and doesn’t block off public structures, like bus stops and parking meters, which can be found on the Open Restaurants website.
Depending on the location of the restaurant, restaurant owners may have to follow requirements for roadway seating, such as providing a secure barrier but also keeping traffic in consideration. The Open Restaurants website lists the rules such as,”Not place seating or barriers within 8’ of a crosswalk, to provide for safe vehicle turns and avoid crowding,” “significant snow events may necessitate the temporary removal of some barriers from the roadway,” and “Not place seating or barriers within 8’ of a crosswalk, to provide for safe vehicle turns and avoid crowding.”
How does the DineOut NYC program affect restaurants in NYC? So far, DineOut has helped 6 restaurants in the 5 boroughs with outdoor dining. An example is Mott Street in Chinatown, where DineOut provided the restaurants with a cost effective, yet stylish design template. Even parts of the community chimed in to help out, beautifying the establishments with pleasant colors. As stated by an article by 6sqft.com, “Local artist Sammi Qu-Kwok made stencils of different dim sum designs on the dining modules and students from the nearby Transfiguration School painted them in bright colors. Think! Chinatown artist James Chan also contributed stunning artwork as interactive tabletop designs, equipped with scannable QR codes.”
Two more restaurants on 37th Road in Jackson Heights were chosen by DineOut. A fifty foot long installation was placed in the parking lanes in front of the establishments, consisting of pavilions with banquette seating. The back of the modules were decorated by Nitin Mukul, a local artist, and the designs displayed the restaurants’ Indian and South Asian cultures. And on Woodside Avenue, DineOut supplied an installation that could hold 66 seats across 5 dining pavilions. Puwana Prathuangsuk created a mural for the Elmhurst dining experience, featuring an elephant for Thailand and a panda for China.
David Rockwell, founder of the Rockwell Group, wants to continue helping struggling restaurants and expand DineOut NYC. Rockwell Group will be partnering with Cosentini-A Tetra Tech Company to update HVAC systems at each restaurant, as well as start creating templates for indoor dining. From an article published by amny.com, David Rockwell said,
”With the return of limited indoor dining we are looking to find ways to expand our learnings from the initial DineOut NYC program to create an integrated model that allows restaurant owners to more seamlessly utilize all of these spaces in a safe and comfortable way for indoor dining, outdoor dining and takeout.”
How are restaurants in NYC doing during the pandemic? As restaurants shifted from outdoor dining to indoors, the Times wrote, “New York City’s restaurant owners have warned that their businesses, many of which operate on tight margins in the best of times, are on the edge of financial collapse. Thousands of employees, many of them low-wage workers, have been laid off since March, and their jobs have yet to fully return.”
While Open Restaurants became permanent year-round in the fall, a large portion of the city’s restaurants haven’t taken part in it. Only 44 percent of restaurants used outdoor seating last summer, according to the New York State Comptroller’s Office. Structures used for outdoor dining cost several thousands of dollars to set up, and the payoff can vary. In an article from Restaurant Dive, Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, stated,
”Less than half of New York City’s restaurants, or about 11,000 restaurants, participated. How helpful [outdoor dining was to these restaurants] was also based on how much outdoor space you had. Restaurants had limitations if there was a bus stop, fire hydrant or other obstruction near their business. Outdoor dining was never intended to help save the industry…it was intended to get a little more occupancy outdoors from what we lost indoors.” These establishments have also faced conflict within their communities about taking up space on the street. An article from Eater reported, “Over 4,400 complaints have been logged through 311 regarding outdoor dining structures in NYC since July.”
With a lack of guidance and financial assistance from the government, the restaurant industry is slowly trying to figure out how to survive on their own. Quoted from the Times, Jonathan Forgash, an executive director of Queens Together, a group that reached out to some restaurants to raise money, described some ways restaurants are trying to adapt to the pandemic. He said,
”Some are reducing offerings on their menus to limit the cost of food supplies, [space], and labor, others are trying to reach a bigger customer base through third-party delivery apps, despite the added cost of using the apps. And still others are repurposing their dining areas into markets. People are literally throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what is sticking or working for now.”
Stephanie Carreto and David Clervil, students from Academy, were interviewed about their thoughts on eating at restaurants. Both prefer eating indoors at home because it feels safer and is more comfortable for them. Clervil stated that he would be okay with eating at a restaurant during the pandemic if the restaurants were following health guidelines and keeping a safe distance from other tables. Carreto said she would be too worried about getting sick, but it wouldn’t stop her from ordering food from restaurants. Even if she wore a mask and was 6 feet away from other tables, her concern was that it was still risky because you have to take off your mask whilst eating. She also supports restaurants staying open during the pandemic, because it’s one of the few sources of income some families may have in this situation, and despite the risks, they can take health precautions such as checking the temperature of incoming customers, distancing tables, and offer delivery instead of outdoor dining. Clervil believes that restaurants should only stay closed for indoor dining, and offer only delivery or pick-up, or even partner with food delivery companies to get food to the customer.
Restaurants have been a significant source of employment for residents of NYC, providing over 300,000 jobs in 2019. They are also a way for people to experience different cultures, and have been a part of the city’s community. In this current crisis, dining at restaurants has become a temporary escape for some who want relief from the pandemic. Supporting the restaurants is important, because it shows signs that community spirit is still going strong in this bleak situation. However, what’s most important for everyone is to stay safe. As quoted from an article from 6sqft.com, David Rockwell said in a press release, “Restaurants have never been more important to the vitality of our City. In addition to their importance to the local economy, they create a sense of urban vitality by serving neighbors and visitors and attracting people to different parts of the City. What happens on our sidewalks and streets, we are learning, is critical to how we pull through this as a City. It is a moment for us to rethink the value of urban space and ensure that it is used to the benefit of the City.”