How Restaurants and Businesses Will Work in the City
During this global pandemic, restaurants and other food service businesses in the city have been arguably the hardest hit industries. As the weather gets colder,,they will, unfortunately, have to face many new challenges related to COVID-19. Many eateries have relied on providing and expanding outdoor seating to survive the outbreak. It is estimated that over 10,000 restaurants, bars, and businesses in New York City (NYC) have been able to stay financially afloat due to this practice. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council now permit year-long outdoor dining, the unpredictability of winter weather may significantly compromise this failsafe for owners.
A promising solution to these challenges is heat lamps. NYC local officials have approved the use of the previously-banned propane heaters as outlined in the Open Restaurants program, which provides guidelines to businesses on how to safely offer dining options during the pandemic. According to officials, over 10,600 restaurants and businesses have enrolled in this program.
Mayor Bill de Blasio stated, “These guidelines are designed to keep diners, employees, and pedestrians safe and healthy - and we look forward to giving New Yorkers more chances than ever to enjoy the outdoors year-round. Restaurants make New York the greatest city in the world, and we’re proud to support their continued recovery from this crisis.” The guidelines allow restaurants and businesses to use three different types of heaters: electric radiant, natural gas radiant, and propane heaters. This solution is promising news for restaurants and businesses, but there are still doubts that it will be enough to keep them open throughout the winter. Moreover, there still exists the concern that these heat lamps present serious fire hazards.
Another solution is one that has already been put to use:in the construction of outdoor tents. The founder of the architecture firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), Vishaan Chakrabarti, has suggested that the city should provide scaffolding to build partially enclosed outdoor dining and seating areas with roll down coverings to trap heat.
Although this seems like a good option, public health officials and medical experts have voiced concerns that many restaurants and businesses have created tents that do not provide sufficient ventilation, increasing the probability of spreading the virus. However, the city and state have established new rules that could curb this problem by establishing that spaces with more than 50% of its wall area covered will be considered indoors and must abide by the 25% capacity limit and other restrictions (e.g. spacing tables six feet apart). Even so, there remains uncertainty about how strictly this will be enforced due to the large number of restaurants and importance of the industry to the city and state’s economy.
Restaurants with take-out and/or fast-food capability may be positioned more favorably. I spoke to Sammy Hsiao, an owner of two Dunkin Donuts and Subways in Brooklyn, about his plans for the upcoming winter. “I am only slightly concerned about the weather this winter,” Mr. Hsiao said. “Since a large number of my customers prefer take-out or drive-through, I do not anticipate business slowing.” For this reason, Mr. Hsiao has not felt the need to set up indoor or outdoor seating at his stores. The popularity of hot beverages during winter months could also provide much needed financial support for his stores, highlighting that each business may have unique advantages and disadvantages during this difficult period.
Even with all these measures, already about half of the restaurant industry’s 300,000 workers in NYC are unemployed, with many businesses having permanently closed. Many experts estimate that up to half of all food industry businesses in existence prior to the pandemic will close for good within the next year. How customers respond to these measures and their commitment to supporting the restaurants that they love will determine what the landscape of the food service industry will look like after the pandemic.