Imagine what it would be like to travel in time from 2019 to now. If you were just strolling down a city street and not talking to anyone, would you even know we’re in a pandemic? Sidewalks are no longer deserted, most pedestrians have stopped wearing masks outside, and cardboard signs praising important workers have been thrown in the recycling bin. But there’s still one big tip that things are a little scary: all the outdoor dining.
Tables and chairs on sidewalks and in parking lots have been ubiquitous since Tiger King phase of COVID-19. You can find sheds and greenhouses and bubbles and yurts and igloos and sidewalk tables and recycled railroad cars and tents-that-are-outdoors-but-really-are-indoors in larger cities like Washington, DC and San Francisco, and far less so like Covington , Kentucky; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Jamestown, North Dakota. New York City alone has more than 12,000 bars and restaurants with pandemic outdoor seating.
Early in the pandemic, local governments relaxed zoning restrictions to allow restaurants and bars to gather these (very regrettably named) “street areas” as a lifeline. “For those restaurants where eating out is possible, it’s been a saving grace,” said Alex Susskind, director of the Cornell Institute of Food and Beverage Management. Lots of upcoming diners were rightly wary of eating, unmasked, in poorly ventilated, potentially crowded dining rooms. But the al fresco option remained enticing, even when the weather turned, and even in places where it meant you had to slur your food down in a parka and gloves. The country’s pop-up street cafes were never meant to exist forever, but they are one of the few measures that have lasted the entire pandemic for a long time.
The one thing that outdoor dining has not yet weathered is this winter. Hi, what is the point of mRNA if it is not to free us from the pain of eating outside in bad weather? It’s been a year and a half since these plywood shanties first appeared on our streets, and now they suddenly risk becoming useless. But whether Americans decide to forgo propane-lit dinners on the sidewalk in the coming months could have consequences that go far beyond this winter. The choice we make may help to reveal whether outdoor dining is just another pandemic change disappearing by itself, or a more fundamental shift in how cities divide their public spaces.
To get one-ahem– A taste of what streeteries will look like this winter, I called up to four restaurant owners and managers, all of whom work in different states. I heard about so many different types of heaters that I could start my own plumbing business. I heard stories of meals being served last winter in Arctic winds and sub-zero temperatures, and feared what horrors might come. But for the most part, I kept hearing this: Yes, we will still be serving customers outside this winter; but no, we do not expect it to bring in that much money. This is also what David Henkes, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic, expects as it cools down. Outdoor dining “is going to stay in play pretty significantly this winter,” he said, “though urgently enough there is not quite as much as last year.”
Stephanie Webster, the owner of Oakley Wines in Cincinnati, told me that she has already spread the alley adjacent to her restaurant with heaters for maximum heat, but she’s not sure how many of her patrons there actually are. want to linger in the cold for chardonnay and charcuterie. The temperature has already crept into her 40s some nights and she has only seen a quarter of the outdoor dinners she had at this point last year. Pisticci, an Italian neighborhood in Manhattan, has so many tables outside that the restaurant’s capacity is double what it was before the pandemic, according to its manager, Jay Schmidt. After braving snowstorms to serve diners last winter, he sets limits this year. When it comes to your 20s or under, outdoor dining will be a no-go. “At some point, it’s going to be a matter of staff safety,” he told me. “I do not want anyone to slip on the deck.”
Restaurants are not ready to give up eating on the street because yes, many Americans are still afraid to eat inside. Every week, polling firm Morning Consult tracks the public’s feelings about going into restaurants. People are better off eating indoors now than they were in August, studies show, but still, as of last week, a third of adults are not yet familiar with the idea. That rate can still change a lot, depending on what happens to coronavirus cases and how cold it gets going forward. If another pandemic wave is on the way – unfortunately a very real possibility – those street cafes could be fuller than you might think. However, a really bad winter could push dining guests in the door. “A lot of people need to tear the patch off,” Schmidt said. “Minus-12 will do it.”
Restaurants already have enough to worry about without trying to model pandemic curves in January, so many are giving their streets and patios in the backyard a much-needed glow ahead of the next. You will see lots of the worn carpets and barely heated wooden sheds from 2020, Henkes said, but also more decorations to make the experience more cozy or just entertaining. It could mean more stunts similar to what a Bronx bar did last winter, by using its allotted parking spaces to recreate the graffiti-laced interior of a subway car; or perhaps restaurants will copy the example of one in a ski town in Colorado who turned old gondola cars into heated mini-dining rooms that seat eight.
However, such upgrades are not cheap. Lots of establishments have an arsenal of heaters and garden furniture from 2020, but even very basic outdoor winter dining can be costly for many restaurants this year. Sidewalk heaters tend to run on propane, which has not been so expensive since Barack Obama’s first term as president. Webster from Cincinnati’s Oakley Wines told me that fuel is now so expensive that if a customer orders a glass of wine for $ 13 and then snuggles under the blue flame for an hour, she is lose money on the whole case. If restaurants set up for winter dining and no one comes, then what was once a lifeline for their business could turn out to feel more like a trap.
With yet another successful winter season, street farms can go from pandemic stopgap to something we expect from cities. In a few years, America’s cities may have more permanent outdoor opportunities on every corner. Alex Susskind of Cornell said he envisions a post-pandemic future where outdoor dining is not always available but comes back every year when the weather is good.
But pop-up street dining takes up public space that could be used for many other things – and in ways that are perhaps more community-oriented. A few cities have already reached that conclusion, having repulsed the urban landscape from tables and chairs; and resistance is also rising elsewhere. NIMBYs want their neighborhoods free of wooden sheds. Everyone wants to dismantle nesting sites for rats. “If opponents of these sheds can point to the fact that they are no longer in use this winter, then they can point to the idea of having them removed from the public sidewalk,” said Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard. “If [outdoor seating areas] not being used, even restaurant owners will not want to maintain them. “
Street dining can even be drawn into the country’s red-blue divide. Areas full of pandemic-cautious liberals – and car-hating city dwellers – may be ready to hold street settlements for a while yet, while red areas that are already back to normal are dropping them for this winter and beyond. That would follow the restaurant boom as a whole: Establishments in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2020, such as Oklahoma and Kentucky, are doing better relative to 2019 than those in states Joe Biden won, such as California and Illinois.
Ultimately, this winter is the make-or-break moment for where outdoor dining takes place from here. If customers are willing to endure sitting in the cold this winter, street businesses are also likely to endure next spring and summer, and perhaps into the fall of 2022. By that time, they will have more than two years of squatters. ‘rights on the city streets and a chance to stay longer.