When the pandemic hit the city in March 2020, Frangos Peri Peri had been open in a narrow East Village storefront for just a few months.
More than two years later, the Portuguese chicken restaurant on Avenue B has managed to survive, but its orange wooden outdoor shed on the pavement is no more.
Owner Rosina Ishaq had set up sidewalk tables in June 2020, when former Mayor Bill de Blasio initially established outdoor dining as a lifeline for thousands of businesses hard hit by COVID-19 restrictions .
“It was a good idea from the city and it definitely helped the first year of business, 110%,” Ishaq told THE CITY. “If we couldn’t have seated people outside, we wouldn’t have survived.”
But she says a lack of official guidance has caused the outdoor space to rack up violations from an assortment of city agencies. Several months ago, the shed — which Ishaq said cost more than $7,000 to build and remove — had to be dismantled after it was found non-compliant in 21 inspections.
For Ishaq, it was symbolic of a process that she says hasn’t always been clear.
“There were no rules,” she said. “One day one person came to say one thing, the next day another person came to say something different.”
At a city council hearing last month, Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez again credited the outdoor dining program with saving thousands of restaurants and more than 100,000 jobs by transforming streets and the sidewalks into places where cooped-up New Yorkers could dine and drink while getting relatively fresh air.
But at the same hearing, Councilman Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn), whose neighborhood includes the popular restaurants and bars of Bay Ridge, said some of the structures looked like “abandoned shipwrecks.”
New York City has recovered about 75% of the jobs lost during the pandemic, THE CITY’s recovery tracker shows, but hard knocks from the restaurant industry continue to weigh on its recovery. The accommodation and food service industry’s employment rate is still down 17.5% from pre-pandemic levels, according to seasonally adjusted data from the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget .
DOT records show that 12,448 applications from the Open Restaurants program have requested permission to set up outdoor seating since June 2020 – including nearly half in Manhattan, nearly 3,000 in Brooklyn and nearly 2,500 in Queens.
“It’s like an industry that suddenly popped up out of nowhere on June 22, 2020,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants and bars.
Rules and regulations for outdoor dining are still being developed.
As the city moves toward creating a permanent program, DOT data analyzed by THE CITY shows that inspections more frequently result in penalties for restaurant and bar owners.
In about 10% of inspections to date, inspectors have decided to slap owners with “cease and desist” notices, which essentially meant closing outdoor seating. But most of them only started accumulating after mid-2021.
Interviews with residents and restaurateurs highlight lingering frustrations everywhere, with some calling for stricter enforcement of hours, cleanliness and parking.
“Outdoor sheds have made life here difficult on these fronts: parking, garbage cans, traffic jams,” said Trev Huxley, who lives next door to Patrizia’s, an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg.
“I still support open restaurants, but there needs to be some kind of ground rules, some enforcement, at least in cases where there’s a blatant disregard for civic life.”
Patrizia had to get rid of a 60ft by 8ft shed on the roadway at 35 Broadway in August after learning it was in a no-go zone. According to owner Antonio Alaio, the outdoor space helped him retain some of his employees as the restaurant began to focus more on deliveries.
“But soon people started complaining for no reason, people living in this block and the block on the other side,” Alaio told THE CITY. “I think they didn’t like the noise – that’s what we mostly heard from them.”
The DOT, meanwhile, says it’s been easy for owners.
A spokesperson who declined to be named said the agency had been ‘very lenient’ on enforcement due to the restaurant industry still suffering from the pandemic and assessing how juggle application standards with the health and safety concerns of customers and the local community.
The DOT says it has conducted 7,401 inspections so far this year — which is expected to be lower than 2020, when the agency conducted 30,857 inspections in the first year of the pandemic, or all 25,577 checks in 2021.
Approximately 46% of inspections resulted in an establishment being labeled “compliant” or “ignored” because the seating arrangement did not require inspection.
Agency inspectors reported non-compliance with dozens of DOT requirements in about 20 percent of inspections. In the rest of the inspections, the DOT can put establishments on review, in a “pre-suspension” phase, or use other measures of evidence without violation.
To date, only 60 outdoor dining structures have been removed by the city, the DOT spokesperson said, most removed for being abandoned – including 17 removed after being damaged or destroyed by motor vehicles . Others had to go, the spokesperson said, to restaurants that “continually failed to follow the rules of the program.”
The next phase of the Open Restaurants program — the city hopes to establish permanent rules and guidelines for sidewalk dining by fall — comes as restaurant owners have faced complaints about unsightly structures, garbage, rodents and the occupation of street parking spaces.
“It looks like you’re walking through the San Gennaro party, that’s how crowded it can get,” said East Village resident Marie Hart, 45, pointing to several sheds along Avenue B. “You’ve got your bike lane and you’ve got your driveway and your car lane – inside should be the restaurant lane.
City officials said few restaurants were bad neighbors.
“That percentage is a small minority,” Rodriguez said at the May City Council hearing that touched on outdoor dining. “The vast majority of restaurants, they take care of the structure.”
While DOT officials said the city has begun hiring planners, application reviewers, inspectors and outreach staff for the permanent program, implementation faces a lengthy process of legislation, design , licenses for seats on sidewalks and roadways and at least six months of awareness.
The DOT said it hopes a permanent open restaurant program can be in place by 2023, with rules that would include removing tables and chairs that are not in use, banning structures at several levels in streets and sidewalks and the prohibition of amplified sound on sidewalks and in pavement dining rooms.
“No one has taken the position that we shouldn’t have outdoor seating,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager for Manhattan Community Board 3, which includes the Lower East Side and part of Chinatown. “The problem has been sheds and rats, it has been about hours and amplified music.
“It’s not a black and white question.”
Rigie said many restaurants are on hold while the program’s application and costs take shape and most “won’t make a meaningful investment” in their current structures if they are subject to widespread changes.
“Right now the biggest issue is the uncertainty of the future schedule,” Rigie said. “Restaurants are waiting to hear what the standing guidelines will be to determine whether or not they should comply and whether to apply.”
As he sat outside a closed shed once used by a now-closed pizzeria on Avenue A, Dan Mauk, 69, said he hoped expanded outdoor dining would become a regular part of the post-pandemic city.
“I understand a lot of people live upstairs and have to listen to noise,” he said. “But this is New York – they bring a lot of life to the streets.”
A block away in Frangos, Ishaq said she wanted a “workable solution.”
“In this industry right now, we need all the help we can get,” she said. “Food costs are crazy, staff costs are crazy, we have to try to do business any way we can.”