Last year the restaurant industry survived in large part thanks to outdoor dining. Indoors, eateries were subject to the vagaries of Cuomo math, as the then-governor used his expertise in air currents and geometry to determine just how many people could sit in each fine restaurant and taco joint from Amagansett to Amherst. And then change his mind, depending on “the science,” or maybe how he felt about Mayor de Blasio that day.

Outdoors there was a lot more freedom, even if it wasn’t a free-for-all. Dining structures had to be stable and protected from traffic. But restaurateurs were given the leeway they needed to survive — including flexibility in how they could heat their structures. Few wanted to run new gas lines or permanent wiring to a plywood shack in the street.

But now they’ll have to, if they want to continue outdoor dining. The city just announced that the portable propane heaters that helped so many eateries survive the winter, without incident, are no longer allowed. They were safe enough last year but apparently no longer are.

Last year, you see, there was an emergency that allowed the rules to be bent a little. But the emergency is hardly over. We’ve seen unexpected surges in the virus, with more Americans dying from it so far this year than did in 2020. We’re on the right side of the curve now and hope to stay there, but we all know that’s not guaranteed. There are people who would not want to go inside a restaurant but would be willing to eat outdoors, and then there are those who are not allowed inside because they remain unvaccinated. All of them, if they eat outside, need to be kept warm.

But to comply with the city’s new rules for outdoor heating, eatery owners have to pay far more money, obtain permits, hire master electricians or plumbers and be subject to inspection. That’s the way it has been for a long time indoors, but for temporary shacks in the street?

We suspect a lot of owners will feel something like Bruno Rinaldi, owner of Bruno Ristorante in Howard Beach, did when he told us, “Of course it’s going to hurt.” He said he had lost 25 percent of his business since the vaccine mandate took effect in September and lamented how the city keeps “piling on and piling on” more regulations that could at some point make him decide to close down.

If portable propane heaters were safe enough last year, they should be today. They should be allowed until the emergency is truly over. It will be one day, but we’re not there yet.

(1) comment

stan chaz

As much as I ALSO want to save & support our restaurants, the health & safety of patrons must be paramount as we go forward.

First of all the emergency COVID indoor dining restrictions were not merely due to the whims of the Mayor or Governor, as you imply. Instead, these measures were difficult but necessary steps to stop the spread of a deadly pandemic, especially before we had the weapon of mass vaccinations for risky indoor dining - all in the context of a highly transmissible airborne virus, made even worse with the Delta variant. The more ventilation the better, to both protect yourself, your family, your friends, and others. That is, if you care, and accept responsibility for BOTH you actions and your freedoms.

Secondly if these outdoor dining areas wish to become permanent (and thereby add to the vitality of our communities with vibrant outdoor spaces) then they must invest in making themselves as safe as possible. as permanent structures.

Contrary to your dismissal of the risks of propane I remind you that there have been car and truck collisions with outdoor dining structures in the past, and there will continue to be in th future. All we need (or DON’T need) is to have these collisions result in a propane tank explosion and the death or injury of patron.

Two years ago in my neighborhood a nearby backyard bar propane explosion sent a plume of fire 30 feet into the air. Likewise a propane barbecue explosion stated a building fire in Williamsburg a year ago due to its proximity to the building’s facade. And years ago a distant relative of mine died in a downtown Manhattan propane food cart explosion.

Finally, as per the 2020 pre-pandemic NYPD / NYC fire regulations for propane tanks:

Don’t use kerosene or propane space heaters.

The use of kerosene or propane space heaters is strictly prohibited and illegal in New York City.

Kerosene and propane space heaters pose a high risk of death and injury, and generate carbon monoxide

Use portable electric heaters that are certified and approved by a recognized testing lab such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL)

Likewise for the precautions for storing propane cylinders: NEVER store or place a small propane tank indoors or in an enclosed area such as a garage, basement, storage shed or tent. 

DO NOT store or place a propane tank in excessive heat (120F or above), near a stove fireplace, portable heater, or other source of heat. As the temperature in the propane tank rises so does the pressure which could activate the relief valve and vent propane into the atmosphere and ignite. 

DO NOT smoke or have any other source of ignition such as open flame or electrical tool in the area when working with propane. 

NEVER place your spare propane tank next to, or under your BBQ grill to avoid a heat build and possible vapor release. 

In other words, propane is nothing to fool around with, and there are much safer alternatives. TO those who complain about the extra cost- will they argye about placing a price on customer safety? Furthermore the city is provising GRANTS of up to 5k for these outside dining areas to convert, so they have no excuse.

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