In order for our restaurants and cafes to survive, we all must toss out norms we have lived with for years and seek new solutions.
On June 9, 22 restaurant representatives in Astoria met remotely in order to create a proposal with significant street-level recommendations for the NYC Department of Transportation. The meeting was sponsored by the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association, and endorsed by Frank Arcabascio, president of the 30th Avenue Business Association.
We proposed full closure on commercial blocks where restaurant density is high from 6 to 11 p.m. on Fridays, and from 6 p.m. on Saturdays to 10 p.m. on Sundays. Restaurants would be allowed to table on the street itself, allowing for social distancing while leaving a corridor for pedestrians and bicyclists. The streets must be kept open during the day for retail and deliveries, except on Sundays when that is unnecessary.
Local business should help provide crowd-control measures, such as physical barriers and security to ensure proper social distancing and controlled alcoholic consumption. We would hope the city can provide security at areas adjacent to these “food courts” if needed. Bars and restaurants would offer masks to those who do not have their own and deny service to those who refuse to wear them.
Last Friday, June 12, we had an example of what happens when controls are not in place. We experienced what some have likened to “spring break” on 30th Avenue, complete with motorcycles ridden on sidewalks, and cars doing “donuts” in intersections. It was a dangerous environment, and we compliment the NYPD for clearing the area quickly and safely when local businesses called. We also want to note that the NYPD complimented local businesses for their cooperation. This chaos is the last thing these businesses want.
If these blocks were closed to vehicular traffic, all this could be avoided.
We must try to close enough blocks, so all establishments are treated equally. We don’t want to leave surrounding restaurants at a disadvantage by pushing customers to the areas operating with closure.
While preferred, if full closure is not possible there is the option to vacate the parking spaces in front of each establishment for extra seating (curbside seating), in addition to maximizing sidewalk seating. This would still allow a traffic corridor; its purpose will depend on its size.
Perhaps a combination of the approaches will work: full closure on restaurant dense blocks, and utilization of cleared parking spots for restaurants whose location does not justify full closure.
Two of the biggest issues are the moving of parked cars and the rerouting of buses. There is no easy answer. However, the existing restriction against having open streets on bus routes needs to be waived or we will never be able to significantly help these small businesses, considering that most of them are in bus service areas. Rather than making changes to the existing Open Streets program, we propose an entirely new program to help small businesses survive.
Parking should be handled in a similar fashion to film shoots: Cars are towed but no one is charged. And publicity to warn drivers is paramount! As to buses — they have wheels and can be detoured.
NYC citizens have made many sacrifices due to the pandemic. Parking a few blocks away or walking an extra block to a bus seems like a small inconvenience if the goal is to help our small businesses survive.
We call for all restaurants, bars and cafes on a given closed block to pool their resources to make sure said blocks meet all standards, including providing barricades, tabling or security if needed.
And lastly, we call on the city to expedite all licenses, especially for outdoor cafes, and waive all fees for the duration of the pandemic.
Our diverse businesses are our charm, and our restaurants and cafes are probably our biggest employers. Let’s make sure of their survival.
Richard Khuzami is President of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association and Carol Rangel is a freelance writer from Brazil and frequent visitor to Astoria who is studying at Emerson College.
This article originally misstated where Carol Rangel is a student. She studies at Emerson College. We regret the error.