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Photograph: Courtesy Bar 54

A case for permanent outdoor dining in NYC

It is worth enduring loud mufflers and intrusive thoughts about cars running off the road and into my tent.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver
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This week marks one year since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. To mark what we’re calling the Pandemiversary, Time Out is looking back at the past year in cities around the world, and ahead to what the future may hold.

In June 2020, we were only three months into the pandemic, but I was knee-deep in sourdough starter, elbow-deep in dirty dishes, and up to my eyeballs in takeout containers. Dining in New York City's incredible restaurants had been barred for what then seemed like an eternity, especially for someone who dines out as a hobby, and the charm of cooking for myself every night had already worn off. 

I realized that I was extremely fortunate to have the ability to even order takeout as much as I did, hoping to support my local spots, but I also found that I desperately wanted food I didn't cook myself at a place that wasn't my apartment. I was tired of doing dishes and ready to be served my food—after all, part of the appeal of living in this city is its food!

Once the city launched its Open Restaurants program on June 22, I made a beeline to my favorite pizza place in Astoria, Macoletta, for one of their brick oven-baked pies. It was a little nerve-wracking to pull down my mask to eat—it was the first time I'd exposed my face to the outside world in three months, but Macoletta had a safely spaced-out set up and had taken precautions to make us feel safe. 

On that day, the sun was out and Astoria was buzzing with activity. Sitting on that corner, I drank in the sights and sounds of our city. I got my fill of people watching as my masked neighbors walked past, listened to the pumped-up jams from cars passing by and even spotted the coolest dog wearing shutter shades. It was my own little urban oasis.

Of course, outdoor dining in NYC happened out of necessity. Restaurants were hurting after so many months of being closed and as a result, servers and staff members lost jobs. 

In August, the New York Times reported that more than 2,800 NYC businesses had permanently closed since March 1, a higher number than in any other large American city. And at that point, employment in NYC's restaurant industry was still only 55% of its level in February 2020, before the pandemic hit, according to the New York State Comptroller's Office.

Seeing the writing on the wall while weighing the risks, Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio allowed restaurants to open for outoor dining with certain protocols. It was a way for our food joints to make some money again with the added benefit of alleviating the cabin fever we all felt then.

Don't get me wrong, outdoor dining still wasn't the solution—on average, only 44 percent of restaurants used outdoor seating that summer, according to the same comptroller report. Many places could not afford to build the necessary setup, which could cost thousands of dollars. In fact, one restaurant owner in midtown told me that his swanky setup had cost a cool $55,000.

So while outdoor dining was a major development in the reopening of NYC, it certainly wasn't enough. It was a small shot in the arm. But like any shot these days, we take what we can get.

As a human being though, dining outside gives me a taste of "normalcy" when everything else is crazy. Last summer, it allowed me to do what I love most in NYC at a time when basically nothing else was allowed. It even connected me to my neighborhood in a way that I hadn't been before by literally sitting me in the middle of it.

It is worth enduring loud mufflers exploding past my eardrums, intrusive thoughts about cars running off the road and into my tent and watching unmasked people get unnervingly close to my food. I'll take it...even when indoor dining is back to full capacity.

Will I dine outdoors in 20-degree weather? I have—with no heater in sight—but New York City's restaurant owners and workers are such innovative people, that it's not a big deal. Many of the city's eateries have provided such a comfortable experience for outdoor diners with heaters, tents and blankets that, honestly, it makes me wonder if I ever need to eat indoors again.

And now that the Open Restaurants program is a year-round initiative, I may not.

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