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Outdoor dining confronts yet another challenge in snow

                                Restaurant patrons dine outdoors in Manhattan on Friday.


    Restaurant patrons dine outdoors in Manhattan on Friday.

NEW YORK >> When outdoor dining began in the summer, the owners of Maya Taqueria fully embraced it. They built a patio on the street outside their restaurant in Brooklyn, and protected it with heavy wooden barriers adorned with plants.

Now, as a major winter storm approaches New York City, the hulking, costly structure that helped the restaurant survive the pandemic faces its own challenges: high winds, heavy blankets of snow and the city’s fleet of plows.

New York City’s restaurants, already staggered by the loss of indoor dining this week, have now been ordered by the city to close their roadway dining programs at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The closure order is temporary, and officials said it could be lifted by Thursday night. But the major snowstorm, expected to sweep into the area on Wednesday afternoon, will pose a significant test for restaurant owners and of how the city’s now-permanent outdoor dining program can withstand severe winter weather.

The city urges restaurants to remove the tops of their outdoor dining structures, but it will not require them to take those structures off the street.

For Maya Taqueria, moving the patio, which required reflective material and sandbags to guard against winter weather, would be impractical, said Daniel Nasser, one of the restaurant’s partners.

“These things now weigh 300 or 400 pounds,” Nasser said. “You can’t tell me to make this thing weigh this much and then have me dismantle and bring it in.”

As of Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service was warning of blizzard-like conditions in the region, with the potential for as much as a foot of snow in parts of New York City and wind gusts that could reach 45 mph.

Given the forecast, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has ordered state agencies to prepare for an emergency response. In New Jersey, parts of which could see up to 18 inches of snow, Gov. Philip Murphy said the storm could be “a real whopper.”

With many students already learning remotely during the coronavirus pandemic and a large portion of workers still toiling from their homes, a storm during the pandemic might be less disruptive to daily routines than it otherwise might have been. But for restaurants, the storm could be yet another blow to a struggling industry that has been in dire financial straits since pandemic restrictions were first implemented in March.

As outdoor dining has become an economic lifeline, restaurants and bars have seen their fortunes increasingly tied to weather conditions.

“Man versus nature is one of those classic literary conflicts,” Emmeline Zhao, a partner and the general manager of Silver Apricot in Greenwich Village, said. “But I feel like I’m living that out in real time.”

New York City introduced an expanded outdoor dining program in June, a bid to extend economic support to restaurants by allowing for tables on sidewalks, in parking areas and on streets where dining had previously been limited or forbidden.

Restaurateurs quickly responded, building makeshift dining rooms outdoors. The program was popular with diners, and Mayor Bill de Blasio made it permanent in September just before indoor dining initially resumed.

Almost immediately, the city’s Sanitation Department, which is charged with snow removal, realized the roadway dining setups could pose challenges for plowing efforts, said the acting sanitation commissioner, Edward Grayson.

Officials were concerned that the large structures would remove the space available to plows on the city’s narrower streets, making it more difficult for them to maneuver and clear snow. They also worried that diners seated at roadway tables could be pummeled by high-velocity snow hurled in the plows’ wake.

“We want to make sure we protect public safety, which is our job,” Grayson said. “But we’re also cognizant that, especially now, these small businesses, these restaurants, need to stay open as long as possible.”

The Sanitation Department opted for a two-tier advisory system for winter weather. The lower level, a winter operations advisory, urges restaurants to take steps to protect customers and staff from snow, ice or sleet but does not require them to close outdoor dining.

The higher level, a snow alert, is triggered when an inch or more of snow is in the forecast. It requires roadway dining to close, electric heaters to be taken off the street and furniture to be moved inside or otherwise secured.

The Sanitation Department’s guidance calls on restaurants to “remove or consolidate structures” only if the forecast calls for more than a foot of snow.

“Some of the structures that were put up are pretty elaborate,” Grayson said. “And we would imagine that if we put out a snow alert, they wouldn’t be able to take them down right away.”

City officials said they wanted to give restaurants as much time as possible to prepare for inclement weather; Grayson said he hoped alerts would come up to two days in advance.

Multiple restaurant owners said they were happy to comply with the guidance, noting that they were unlikely to have served customers outdoors in a snowstorm anyway.

Even before winter, outdoor dining was costly for many restaurants. Many quickly built sidewalk or street cafes in the summer only to spend more to rebuild them when requirements changed.

The regulations shifted again last month, when the city’s Transportation Department, which oversees the outdoor dining program, first provided winter weather guidance.

While the city had been communicative about guidance, Nasser generally felt that officials were not adequately guiding restaurants through an incredibly difficult year.

“It’s one thing to give us these notices,” Nasser said, “but it’s another thing to hold our hand through the process.”

As the snow approached, he planned to take the steps required by the city, he said. Though he felt his structure was sturdy and secure, he would watch nervously to see if it withstood the elements.

But if the structure broke or buckled, Nasser said, he would likely shutter his outdoor dining program.

“I’d probably just take the thing down instead of going through all that again,” he said.

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