(NEW YORK) -- As New York City gets closer to its goal of returning to a pre-pandemic way of life, elected officials are considering making one emergency order a permanent fixture.
A New York City Council committee held its first hearing Tuesday on a bill requested by Mayor Eric Adams that would change the rules for restaurant outdoor seating permits that would allow for more businesses to provide a sidewalk seating option.
City councilmember Marjorie Velazquez, the bill's co-sponsor, said during Tuesday's hearing that thousands of restaurants around the city were able to survive the pandemic because of outdoor dining and argued that the city needed to adapt to help owners stay afloat.
"It's important we save our small businesses, our restaurants," she said during the zoning and franchises committee hearing.
However, some residents who have grown concerned over the noise, loss of street space and other trade-offs of sidewalk seating say this is one rule that shouldn't outlast the emergency order.
Prior to the pandemic, restaurant owners would need to obtain approval from several agencies, pay a fee and go through numerous applications before they received an outdoor dining permit. The outdoor dining area would only be limited to a few feet on the sidewalk.
Roughly 1,400 restaurants, over 1,000 of which were in Manhattan, had outdoor seating permits before the pandemic, according to city records.
In June 2020, former Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an executive order that amended the city's regulations and allowed struggling restaurants to apply for a permit for outdoor dining options in front of their restaurant, on parking spaces and, in some cases, on a closed off street. The seating area needed to meet several requirements, including a minimum of eight feet of sidewalk space for pedestrians and the removal of chairs and other items when the eatery is closed.
Fees were waived as part of the order, and the city's Department of Transportation oversaw the temporary program.
Since the Open Restaurants program's inception, the city has approved over 12,000 permits, 6,000 of which are for restaurants outside of Manhattan, according to data from the city. The program has been renewed several times during the pandemic and is set to expire when the city's pandemic state of emergency ends.
The new proposed legislation would keep the outdoor dining rules in place permanently but would charge owners a $1,050 initial fee and a $525 annual fee for subsequent years. Once approved, the Department of Transportation would continue to issue guidelines for outdoor dining areas and regulate the businesses.
Several restaurant owners and advocacy groups said the rule change was a long time coming and would be a boon to their economic recoveries.
Loycent "Loy" Gordon, the owner of Neir's Tavern, a 200-year-old bar in Queens, testified that without outdoor dining, his business would be permanently closed. He encouraged lawmakers to continue offering outdoor dining options to more restaurants.
"We have an opportunity to reimagine a bold and better new way forward. Outdoor dining is the start," he said.
Not every New Yorker is keen to the idea.
Some opponents who testified at the hearing said the city has failed to enforce some regulations on outdoor dining areas regarding litter and noise, and they claimed that some restaurants are failing to provide ample space for pedestrians and cars.
Jeannine Kiely, the chair of a Manhattan community board, testified that the neighborhoods in her community board's boundary have 1,000 restaurants with outdoor dining and despite thousands of city warnings for violations, the city has only issued 22 fines on owners and removed four permits.
"In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out. Not in New York City with open restaurants," she said. "The city has a terrible track record."
City Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez acknowledged during the hearing that the city has had to deal with instances where an outdoor dining area stepped out of its bounds and inconvenienced neighbors, but he reassured attendees that they will take residents into consideration before they fine tune the regulations for a permanent basis.
"We are ready to take your feedback," he testified.
The bill will have to pass in the zoning and franchises committee before going through a full council vote. Neither vote has been scheduled.
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