Will Expanded Patios Save the Restaurant Business?

CC BY 2.0. Outdoor dining in Paris/ Lloyd Alter

Cities around the world are having a look at it, but it will be a challenge.

Not long ago, everyone was excited to see Vilnius, Lithuania, take back the streets and give them to restaurants; now this is being looked at as a strategy for saving restaurants all over the world. In most cities, if the restaurants are open at all, there are limitations on capacity and distance between tables, regulations that make it difficult to earn a living. Outdoor patios have always provided a boost for restaurants, but now they are a lifeline.

As usual in North America, some cities are more aggressive and progressive than others. Kriston Capps writes in CityLab that Al Fresco Dining Is the Restaurant Industry’s Best Hope. Some cities are already permitting it, and in others restaurant operators are demanding it.

Eateries in Baltimore’s Little Italy are clamoring for street closures so they can reclaim the streets for red-sauce dining. And in restaurant-dense Manhattan, the demand to eat outside has been long and loud: Many believe that the sidewalk tables — and the street closures that would make room for them — represent the best hope of survival for New York’s imperiled restaurant scene.

NYC Restaurants Need Open Streets NOW from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Clarence Eckerson's latest epic for Streetsfilms looks at the situation in New York City, with host Henry Rinehart. Some quotes:

"My people and I are hurting. My city is hurting. Our leaders are not creating the safety and certainty that our lives and our jobs require."
"When the weather changes, after 100 days of solitude, we are all going to be desperate to be together, but to be safe. All we know now is that safety requires space. There is available public space in front of every door. Restaurant people are planners and doers. We do not sit alone in silence well. Give restaurants access to open streets and they will bring us all hope and sustenance."
Outdoor dining in Berlin

Outdoor dining in Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Another city where the Mayor is usually dragged kicking and screaming to do anything progressive is Toronto, where the Mayor actually sounds positive about it on Global News.

“I think that it could be a lifeline for some of the restaurants, especially in light of the fact that they will probably be required to have tables further apart inside and outside,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. He said he’s asked Transportation Services to find possible locations where expanding patio spaces would be possible and is expecting a report "fairly soon... I think we can sweep away some of the red tape and get this done as a way of making the city friendly for everybody but also our friends in the restaurant business," Tory said.

Alas, the words "fairly soon" have a special meaning in Toronto, and patios are regulated really tightly; they take years to get approved, thanks to NIMBY opposition to people having fun after nine o'clock. Then there are the approvals to serve alcohol which come from another level of government. The patio season is starting now, and "fairly soon" probably means November.

There are other issues of climate besides November chills; there is also July heat. Kriston Capps writes:

Is al-fresco-everything the answer? It has its downsides. Especially in the Southern states that are rushing headlong to reopen, summer brings miserable heat and humidity. Diners who are forced to choose between increased air-conditioned virus exposure indoors or sweating outside may stay home or stick to takeout. Pandemic skeptics don’t recognize any such tradeoff, of course. Customers in Georgia who see coronavirus exposure as a matter of personal choice are likely going to go with AC every time.

The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a culture war is going to be a serious issue in many places.

Outdoor dining in Lisbon

Outdoor dining in Lisbon/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I suspect another big issue will be washroom access. These are usually at the rear of restaurants, or in older, smaller restaurants, in the basement. Customers should also be washing their hands before they eat. Having them all traipsing through the inside of the restaurant may be problematic.

But ultimately, I suspect that the biggest issue is that we have run out of time. So many rules have to be waived, NIMBYs ignored, decisions made. In one Canadian city, the Mayor said he wouldn't close a lane unless every store owner on the street was consulted. A good parallel to this might be Vision Zero; everybody loves the idea, but implementation is another story.

They are all going to just run out the clock. It's a shame, because it could have been glorious.