Outdoor dining is a financial lifeline for Brooklyn restaurants right now but not everyone is on board with it.

In November, the city proposed a zoning amendment to permanently remove geographic restrictions on where sidewalk cafes can be located within New York City, but 29 of 51 community boards voted against it.

Two of those community boards were Brooklyn Community Boards 4 and 5, which cover Bushwick and East New York, respectively. They voted against the Permanent Open Restaurants amendment citing problems with noise, sanitation and a loss of parking space.

Currently, there’s an emergency order signed during the pandemic allowing restaurants to operate outdoors.

“This was a fantastic initiative under the height of the pandemic to allow businesses to move forward,” Melinda Perkins, district manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 5, said during a Brooklyn borough board meeting in early December.

“But I would like to understand the impetus behind it now that there are mandates in place for vaccination, and whether there’s still a strain on businesses.”

The inside of Chez Oskar’s outdoor dining area. Photo: Supplied

Now, the record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases due to the new Omicron variant and a shortage of reliable testing is forcing restaurants to shut their doors or pivot to outdoor dining only to protect their staff and guests from infection.

It is unknown whether this new surge in infection will change the Boards’ minds. Both Community Camacho and Perkins did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

“Let the community decide, the people that have been suffering in this community,” Robert Camacho, district manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 4 said in early October, during a City Planning Commission public meeting.

“All we ask for is a decent place to live.”

Despite receiving a negative majority, the Department of Transportation only considers what is expressed by boards as recommendations, and could still authorize the program.

The next step in the implementation of the Permanent Open Restaurants Program is the City Planning Commission’s vote, but there isn’t a date set for this yet.

Areas of Brooklyn that would be excluded from maintaining sidewalk-cafés if the program isn’t approved include Court Street, from Schermerhorn Street to Montague street, 13th Avenue between 3rd Avenue and the Gowanus Expressway and 13th Avenue from 39th Street to Utrecht Avenue, among others.

So far, at least 23 Brooklyn restaurants are closed for the next few days like popular neighborhood bar Pearl’s Social & Billy Club in Bushwick, which is closed until December 27, or eatery Rule of Thirds in Greenpoint, which is shuttered until further notice.

Chez Oskar, a popular french spot in Bed-Stuy, has pivoted to outdoor dining only, despite the winter chill, in order to mitigate risk and continue to employ their dedicated staff.

Chez Oskar’s outdoor dining set up. Photo: Supplied.

“Right now, we actually voluntarily shut down for indoor dining because we were getting calls from people who were getting the virus and were just informing us and we said we can’t operate like this,” Charlotta Janssen, owner of Chez Oskar, said.

“We’re taking a huge financial hit but we have no choice. We need to protect our staff.”

As part of the Permanent Open Restaurants Program, restaurants would still need to meet physical criteria, in order to be eligible for a sidewalk café. These requirements include ‘clear path’ conditions, ensuring that tables and chairs are appropriate distances from fire hydrants and neighboring businesses.

“We keep hearing that the DOT is going to take our structure away,” Janssen said. “Our outdoor dining structure works beautifully, though, and is built with the pedestrians in mind as well. It adds so much, and, it takes up such little space on the sidewalk.”

The proposal would not change the process for how sidewalk cafes are reviewed by local community boards. But, the areas where they can be considered would expand to all neighborhoods.

“Small businesses employ something like 10 percent of the city, and we’re getting pushed around,” Janssen said. “Outdoor dining is the silver lining—it’s the only thing helping us survive. The city shouldn’t take it away.”

Miranda Levingston

Covering everything Brooklyn. Twitter: @MLevNews

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  1. Sidewalks are for moving pedestrians, not outdoor diners blocking their way. Besides, these lean-to shacks are no safer from Covid than indoor dining bc they are enclosed.

    1. True, it should be either take out or eat inside those outside eating are just excuse to give restaurant extra space that they don’t have to pay and rarely use. I will not sit in one I rather bring the food home in the comfort of my home away from other. The reason restaurant still have not recovered because most of the staff quit and never return.

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