En plein air: NYC aims to keep outdoor lifestyle post-virus

May 1, 2022, 5:05 AM | Updated: 7:51 am

NEW YORK (AP) — As COVID-19 ravaged New York City, virus-wary denizens locked out of indoor public places poured into the streets, sidewalks and parks. They dined with friends in outdoor sheds hastily erected by restaurants, and went to health classes, concerts and even therapy sessions on streets closed to traffic.

Now as the city continues on its path of recovery, the pandemic could be leaving a lasting imprint on how the city uses its roadways: More space for people and less room for cars.

Even though indoor dining has resumed in the city — no masks or vaccine cards required — outdoor dining decks, set up in former parking lanes, have never been more plentiful.

Meanwhile, the city is expanding its Open Streets program, which closes roadways to vehicles and opens them to pedestrians.

The expansion of the program — originally conceived as a way to give New Yorkers more space to exercise — is partly intended to increase foot traffic along struggling business corridors and give lower-income neighborhoods similar opportunities as higher-profile and wealthier enclaves.

“There have been a lot of closings of things during COVID. There are sections of blocks where there’s lots and lots of empty storefronts, and that’s depressing,” said Maura Harway, who lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “So anything that brings people back and helps the businesses and helps the neighborhood to feel alive and lively.”

New York’s streets — once places where kids played stickball — were turned over nearly completely to vehicles in the automobile age, except for the occasional summer street fair.

But for years, some city leaders have sought to “reinvent and repurpose the use of our streets,” said the city’s transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodriguez, who wants more neighborhood promenades for outdoor gatherings or give safe spaces where parents can teach children how to roller blade, toss a ball or ride a bike.

“The message to all New Yorkers is that our space is their space — that our streets don’t belong to car owners only,” said the commissioner, who oversees both the Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs.

That rethinking began before the pandemic. Two decades ago, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw a major expansion of bike lanes and allowed bike rental stations to be set up on city streets. He championed pedestrian plazas like those in Herald Square and Times Square to keep cars out of pedestrian-heavy corridors. And his administration extended waterfront greenways and parks, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Mayor Bill de Blasio followed his predecessor’s lead and put more measures in place to control and slow vehicular traffic. He also pushed, like Bloomberg, for a system that would charge tolls to drive in a large swath of Manhattan.

Spurred by a traffic accident that killed a 15-year-old girl in the first days of his tenure, the current mayor, Eric Adams, vowed to continue “recapturing space for pedestrians.”

Among the legacies of the pandemic could be the remaking of the city’s food culture by permanently expanding it from the confines of indoor dining to eating en plein air, giving curbsides a bit of Parisian flair.

Before the pandemic, 1,200 establishments had permits to set up tables and chairs on sidewalks. But under the pandemic era’s emergency Open Restaurants program, more than 12,000 eateries and bars got permission to extend service into the streets.

New York City officials and restaurateurs alike say that the outdoor dining shacks helped lure diners back to restaurant tables and helped save the jobs of more than 100,000 workers.

Carmen Ortiz, who manages Il Violino, an Italian restaurant in the Upper West Side, is counting on the city’s efforts to boost pedestrian traffic to generate more customers after many months of hardship for restaurateurs and their employees.

Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Italy, where she saw lots of folks dining in the sunlight.

“But most of those dining outdoors, they were eating in the sidewalks,” she said. “I didn’t really notice that they were like in the middle of the street like here.”

For now, the city’s reimagining of outdoor dining remains in flux because of legal challenges by some community activists and residents who balk at the loss of parking spaces — at least 8,500 spaces in a city where real estate has always been a valuable commodity, whether it be for cars or otherwise.

Critics say the sheds attracted vermin and too many noisy patrons deep into the night — perhaps a sign of recovery for some but an annoyance for others.

“We now have the restaurants on the streets and on the sidewalks,” said Judith Burnett, whose apartment windows face Columbus Avenue, in an area lined with restaurants and again will soon be closed to traffic on Sundays.

While she called the initial move to help restaurants a “brilliant way to help people save their businesses,” she’s now ambivalent if things should stay that way. She doesn’t want traffic permanently slowed, including the buses she rides.

“It tangled up so much traffic,” Burnett said.

City officials say they took those complaints into account when developing new standards.

“Out of all the doom and gloom from the pandemic, one of the bright spots is that it allowed us to reimagine our relationship with the public space — and that’s everything from open restaurants to open streets,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, the trade group for pubs and eateries.

He called outdoor dining a “natural progression,” accelerated by necessity and allow New Yorkers to “enjoy the city in a way they may not have prior to the pandemic.”

Harway, the Upper West Side resident, also called it progress.

“I never particularly liked to eat on the street in New York before the pandemic. It seemed noisy or dirty,” she said. “With everybody eating outdoors at all the restaurants now, it’s become more integrated into the life of the city — maybe that’s what it’s like in Paris or Madrid.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


(Facebook Photo/City of San Luis, Arizona)...
Associated Press

San Luis authorities receive complaints about 911 calls going across border

Authorities in San Luis say they are receiving more complaints about 911 calls mistakenly going across the border.
5 days ago
(Pexels Photo)...
Associated Press

Daylight saving time begins in most of US this weekend

No time change is observed in Hawaii, most of Arizona, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
13 days ago
Mexican army soldiers prepare a search mission for four U.S. citizens kidnapped by gunmen in Matamo...
Associated Press

How the 4 abducted Americans in Mexico were located

The anonymous tip that led Mexican authorities to a remote shack where four abducted Americans were held described armed men and blindfolds.
13 days ago
Tom Brundy points to a newly built irrigation canal on one of the fields at his farm Tuesday, Feb. ...
Associated Press

Southwest farmers reluctant to idle farmland to save water

There is a growing sense that fallowing will have to be part of the solution to the increasingly desperate drought in the West.
20 days ago
A young bison calf stands in a pond with its herd at Bull Hollow, Okla., on Sept. 27, 2022. The cal...
Associated Press

US aims to restore bison herds to Native American lands after near extinction

U.S. officials will work to restore more large bison herds to Native American lands under a Friday order from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
20 days ago
Children play in a dried riverbed in Flassans-sur-Issole, southern France, Wednesday, March 1, 2023...
Associated Press

Italy, France confront 2nd year of western Europe drought

ROME (AP) — Bracing for Italy’s second consecutive year of drought for the first time in decades, Premier Giorgia Meloni huddled with ministers Wednesday to start mapping out an action plan Wednesday, joining France and other nations in western Europe grappling with scant winter rain and snow. Meloni and her ministers decided to appoint an […]
22 days ago

Sponsored Articles

(Photo: OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center)...

Here’s what you need to know about OCD and where to find help

It's fair to say that most people know what obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders generally are, but there's a lot more information than meets the eye about a mental health diagnosis that affects about one in every 100 adults in the United States.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Company looking for oldest air conditioner and wants to reward homeowner with new one

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
En plein air: NYC aims to keep outdoor lifestyle post-virus