Restaurants have lavish setups for outdoor winter dining. But is it safe?
By Winnie Hu and Nate Schweber
A Latin fusion restaurant in Queens will serve crispy arepa cups and ropa vieja at an outdoor dining chalet with rustic wood beams and sparkling chandeliers.
In the Bronx, an Italian place has winter-proofed its back patio with Plexiglas walls and electric heaters, along with festive vines with pink flowers.
And a Manhattan bistro is handing out silver space blankets — the kind used by marathon runners to prevent hypothermia — to shivering diners.
A pandemic that has upended much of life in New York is now ushering in something the city has never really tried: dining by snow and ice. Or, as some restaurants are telling customers, the new BYOB is bring your own blanket.
The explosion of outdoor dining has been a savior for more than 10,000 restaurants and bars that have taken over sidewalks, streets and public spaces to try to keep their businesses afloat. It has been so popular that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council are making outdoor dining permanent.
But year-round dining outside is untested in the city’s bone-chilling winters, and has created daunting challenges for an industry fighting to survive.
“Are we going to have a mild winter or a harsh one?” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group. “It’s a gamble. With so much uncertainty about the weather and diner behavior, it’s a risk.”
While a financial imperative for restaurants, enclosing outdoor areas for winter has raised health concerns as coronavirus cases in New York have started to rise again. Protecting patrons from the elements has led some restaurants to create shelters that lack sufficient ventilation, raising the risk of transmission.
Outdoor heaters — including propane heaters that had been banned in the city but are now permitted as a way to help restaurants — could also pose fire hazards.
Still, with restaurants having few options to make money, New York and other cities are forging ahead with winter outdoor dining. Chicago held a design challenge that drew ideas like a Japanese-style heated table and a modular cabin inspired by ice-fishing huts that fits on a parking spot.
In New York, the multibillion-dollar restaurant industry, one of the city’s most important economic pillars, has been decimated by the pandemic. Indoor dining has resumed, but at only 25% capacity.
About half the industry’s 300,000 employees are out of work. Many of the city’s 24,000 restaurants and bars have closed for good, and those open are seeing only a fraction of their business. Some estimates suggest that up to half may close permanently within the next year.
Still, outdoor dining has raised worries among public health and medical experts who warn that it can create a false sense of security that it is inherently safer than being inside. If customers wind up in completely enclosed spaces, the benefits of being outdoors, like increased airflow, would be lost, and the virus could spread more easily from infected people, through droplets and aerosols, especially if they were not wearing masks.
“You’re actually creating an environment where the virus is within the enclosure,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School who has treated COVID-19 patients and prefers dining at tables out in the open.
After ordering a margarita on a chilly patio in Boston recently, “I looked at the waiter and I said, ‘Soon, the only thing you’ll have on the menu is frozen margaritas,’” Karan said.
More than 10,600 restaurants have signed up for New York City’s outdoor dining program, a huge increase over the 1,023 sidewalk cafes before the pandemic. The program helps offset the indoor dining limit that many establishments say is not enough to climb out of their financial hole. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that capacity could be raised to 50%, but it is unclear when.
The city and state have imposed new rules for winter outdoor dining: A space will be considered indoor dining if more than 50% of its wall area is covered and be subject to the 25% capacity limit and other restrictions, including spacing tables 6 feet apart.
But given the sheer number of restaurants, it remains to be seen how strictly the city will police outdoor dining. Officials said various agencies, including the Transportation, Buildings and Health departments, will play a role in ensuring that restaurants do not block streets and have safe structures that do not pose virus risks.
“We’ll work closely with the industry to make sure every outdoor structure is ready for cold weather and safe for diners and staff,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for the mayor.
It is unclear how many restaurants will actually offer year-round outdoor dining. Rigie said restaurants must weigh how much business they might generate versus the cost of winterizing, which could run as high as $50,000 for expenses, including buying heaters and Plexiglas, and hiring electricians and contractors.
In the Bronx, Enzo’s has enclosed its back patio with plastic and added a pair of electric heaters, but has yet to commit to building an enclosure in the front where tables sit under an awning and five umbrellas. “It’s a game of waiting,” said Robert Aste, a manager.
Restaurants adapting to winter dining are also competing with homeowners for items that make cold weather more bearable, especially heaters.
Ming Lay, the owner of Oceanic Boil in Queens, said he needed electric heaters for his cabana and struck out at five Home Depot stores before snapping up four of them at a Costco.
Nicole Biscardi, a restaurant adviser hired by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, has worked with dozens of restaurants to navigate what she calls “an alphabet soup of regulations,” including different restrictions for each type of outdoor heater — propane, electric and natural gas — and confusing criteria for enclosures. For instance, covering two long sides of a rectangular tent would make it an indoor area, while covering one long and one short side would not.
“It’s a very precarious time for these businesses,” she said. “They’re being hit with cumbersome regulations and a lot of extra expenses.”
Many restaurants worry that winter dining may not pay off. Treis Hill, a co-owner of two Brooklyn bars, Baby Jane and Dick and Jane’s, said they have spent more than $16,000 to set up outdoor dining with barriers, tents and heaters. But on a recent chilly afternoon at one bar, just two customers were under tents that could seat a total of 20.
“I think it’s going to be kind of gloomy for the winter for a lot of businesses,” Hill said.