It’s been over three months since the first few regions in the United States started ordering shutdowns because of the COVID pandemic. Since then, several businesses have shuttered and millions of people have been rendered unemployed. But, with relative stability in new cases now being achieved (and several dozen loaves of quarantine bread having been baked), many states have started inching their way toward a renewal of life as it once was.
Hospitality and other small businesses have been greatly affected by the pandemic and a variety of them have closed down. But there are some that are still continuing to serve and waiting for the day when they can start accepting customers at (or outside) their doorsteps once more. And while the execution of Phase One of the reopening of New York City still meant that restaurants and cafes were only restricted to delivery and takeout, they’ve already started planning out the next few steps. Those were some of the decisions taken at a meeting of the Small Business Committee of Community Board 8.
The meeting involved over 40 members of the local community, including eating and drinking establishment owners, community board members, residents, and heads of local associations. The city’s Department of Health and Department of Transportation were also present to help discern what the next move for these small businesses would be. At the time of the meeting, the announcement for Phase Two’s outdoor dining plans had not been announced. Phase Two is now on track to begin from June 22. But how to creatively utilize the coming changes and trying to see some revenue uptick while still maintaining social distancing norms was what the meeting was really all about.
Extra Outdoor Seating
The main agenda seemed to be how to best capitalize on using sidewalks, curbs, and streets to make up for the 50% capacity that restaurants/cafes were allowed to accommodate. Several suggestions were made, including the usage of vacant schoolyards, parking garages, and construction lots to accommodate for extra outdoor seating. One board member suggested utilizing the storefronts of adjacent businesses on a rotating basis. Public plazas and the navigation of noise and lack of space in these plazas was also discussed.
While there was a general “let’s do this” attitude about the meeting, there was a slight feeling of lost hope as more and more grievances were aired. I spoke with Valerie Mason, one of the co-chairs of the meeting, and she encapsulated that feeling. “While everyone is really excited to reopen, because of the restrictions placed on these businesses, it’s really difficult for them to reopen and be profitable,” she said. “One of the gentlemen on our call said that his sales were so far behind for the year that it would be impossible for him to break even.”
One key suggestion was to adjust the bike lanes that lessened the available street space and modify those accordingly. This could be done by adding barriers around the path to protect customers from bikers and the bikers from any oncoming traffic. This became the crux of the final resolution passed by the committee as a request to the Department of Transportation at the full board meeting the next day. And Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive order to expand outdoor dining come Phase Two’s expanded reopening widens the spaces for restaurants to choose from (and potentially argue over). “There’s just a little bit of sidewalk, and everyone is fighting for their little piece,” Mason said.
Last Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the overcrowding on the streets of New York and the “rampant” social distancing violations. “Don’t make me come down there,” he tweeted, threatening to reinstate lockdown conditions. But several business owners on the UES feel like the reopening has already been delayed long enough. That was one of the main concerns of the board members and business owners at the meeting, who bemoaned the fact that all the tasks being routed and re-routed through the Mayor’s office and different city departments was pushing things back. “These guys need help and they need it quickly,” says Mason. “The response has to be very quick and should give these people some confidence that their government is working with them.”
Members of the meeting stressed that the way to keep local businesses and establishments afloat was simply through more patrons. While it was going to be a hard task to fulfill, encouraging locals to give preference to businesses in their area would help them survive this pandemic. “There is a real consensus that everyone in the community wants to do their part to ensure that all the businesses, be they restaurants or small businesses, are able to come back strong,” Mason said. “Because everybody in our community understands that one of the reasons we live here is because of the vibrancy that small businesses and restaurants bring.”
It’s the hole-in-the-wall cafes, the tiny shoeshine stands, the little “have you heard of that place?” restaurants, and other niche small businesses that give New York City and the Upper East Side their charm. And with the new expansion of outdoor dining regulations, that might present new solutions and equally new challenges to these businesses. But keeping the simple charms alive is going to be one of the toughest tasks of all, a task that the Small Business Committee is willing to take on.