For the past two weeks pasta, chicken marsala and, of course, Chianti, has been served at tables set in what a New Yorker would call the gutter of West 68th Street. The tables were separated from traffic by flowerpots with tall trees and wooden sawhorses topped with large plexiglass signs reading: Joanne Trattoria, 212-721-0068. Makeshift, to be sure, but following the rules, as far as the owner, Joe Germanotta, could determine.
Then the inspector showed up.
“Some guy walks in yesterday from the DOT,” Germanotta reported Monday. “And he says, ‘this isn’t good enough. You’ve got 24 hours to change it or there will be a $1000 fine.’ They threw us a curve ball again.”
DOT stands for Department of Transportation, which Mayor Bill de Blasio put in charge of regulating the thousands of outdoor restaurants proliferating under special permissions created to help restaurants survive this summer of COVID-19.
It’s fair to say the department has not won many admirers among restaurant owners. From all over town have come complaints that the department set rules for supper in the street and then suddenly changed them, costing extra money the eating establishments don’t really have.
“Nobody is making any money,” fumes Germanotta, “and they are asking us to spend thousands of dollars.”
Germanotta may not be the poster child for a struggling restaurateur. His daughter, Stefani, is more widely known as Lady Gaga. On the other hand, he is a genuine Westsider, and Joanne Trattoria’s website gives an easy to visualize picture of how business has vanished for him and others in the neighborhood. “WALKING DISTANCE FROM: Lincoln Center, Beacon Theater, Second Stage Theater, Central Park & Strawberry Fields, AMC Theaters & Columbus Circle,” it states.
Central Park and Columbus Circle are the only places still open.
A key part of Phase Two of reopening, which began June 22, was the city’s pledge to make it easy for restaurants to use the sidewalks and the streets to create outdoor dining, where fresh air could help disperse the coronavirus while increasing the revenue flow.
The Department of Transportation acknowledges it made “adjustments” to the rules covering outdoor setups after the program was underway. The original rules were pretty general and more or less anything visible to traffic seemed to be okay. But then new rules were posted last week requiring foot-and-a-half thick structures.
Germanotta blamed the mayor for failing to think the program through from the start and suggested the basic motive for the change was “to make them look good.”
The Transportation Department had a different interpretation. “This program is a brand-new arrangement, enacted at an unprecedented pace, and restaurants have been generous with their patience,” the department said in a statement to the New York Times restaurant writer last week. “Our adjustments to Open Restaurants have been to make sure this program works safely for everyone.”
Department officials said they were working on a response to an alternative safety suggestion from Germanotta.
“If you are going to open up, and if safety is your concern, why do I have to provide the safety?” he asked.
He suggested that the city had any number of concrete, wooden, metal and plastic road barriers that could be set out to divide traffic from diners. He noted that his street was blocked for both the NYC marathon and the Thanksgiving day parade each year “They’re waiting for the marathon which isn’t going to happen this year,” he said.
Indeed, a few blocks uptown, the NYPD has set up metal barriers on 80th Street at Amsterdam Avenue for the protection of the 20th Precinct station house up the block if protestors seek access, according to an officer posted there.
The shift in rules for outdoor dining was extra painful because it came at the same time that the city decided to postpone indoor dining as the coronavirus continues to plague the city. Germanotta had prepared his dining room with plexiglass dividers he had hung between tables.
He had done the work himself. But he noted that other restaurant owners had spent thousands to refit their interiors. “It just doesn’t make sense. They’re trying to help us and laid on these additional expenses.”
As for the street dining, Germanotta suggested he’d try to comply. “I’m going to put something out there,” he said, leaving some mystery about how closely his solution would fit the city mandate. “How many times are they going to fine me? My other option is just shut it down. The amount of sales and overhead of the manpower. It’s cheaper for me to close down.”
In the end, Germanotta spent $275 for the wood and $1500 for the labor - around $2000 all told, and it now has to be painted. But an inspector approved the fix, and he’s still open, Germanotta said.
“It just doesn’t make sense. They’re trying to help us and laid on these additional expenses.” Joe Germanotta, owner of Joanne’s Trattoria