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COMMENTARY | Dinner by propane light is back—for now.
Imagine what it would be like to time-travel from 2019 to now. If you were just strolling down a city street, and not talking to anyone, would you even know that we’re in a pandemic? Sidewalks are no longer deserted, most pedestrians have stopped wearing masks outside, and cardboard signs praising essential workers have been thrown into the recycling bin. But there’s still one big tip-off that things are a little fishy: all those outdoor-dining setups.
The tables and chairs on sidewalks and in parking spaces have been ubiquitous since the Tiger King phase of COVID-19. You can find sheds and greenhouses and bubbles and yurts and igloos and sidewalk tables and repurposed railcars and tents-that-are-outdoors-but-really-are-indoors in major cities such as Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and in far smaller ones 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 let restaurants and bars assemble these (very regrettably named) “streeteries” as a lifeline. “For those restaurants where it’s possible to have outdoor dining, it’s been a saving grace,” says Alex Susskind, the director of the Cornell Institute of Food and Beverage Management. Lots of would-be diners were rightfully wary of eating, maskless, in poorly ventilated, potentially crowded dining rooms. But the al fresco option remained alluring even as the weather turned, and even in places where that meant slurping down your food in a parka and gloves. The country’s pop-up street cafés were never supposed to be around forever, but they’re one of the few measures that have lingered all pandemic long.
The one thing that outdoor dining hasn’t yet weathered is this winter. Hey, what’s the point of mRNA if it’s not to free us from the torment of eating outside in bad weather? It’s been a year and a half since these plywood shanties first showed up on our streets, and now, suddenly, they’re at risk of being useless. But whether Americans decide to forgo propane-lit dinners on the sidewalk in the months to come could have effects that extend far beyond this winter. The choice we make may help reveal whether outdoor dining is just another pandemic change that peters out on its own, or a more fundamental shift in how cities divvy up their public space.
To get a—ahem—taste of what streeteries will look like this winter, I called up four restaurant owners and managers who all work in different states. I heard about so many different types of heaters, I could start my own HVAC business. I heard stories about meals served last winter in arctic winds and subzero temperatures, and dread about what horrors might be yet to come. But mostly I kept hearing this: Yes, we’ll still serve customers outside this winter; but no, we don’t expect it to bring in that much money. That’s also what David Henkes, a restaurant-industry analyst at the firm Technomic, anticipates as it cools down. Outdoor dining is “going to remain in play pretty significantly this winter,” he said, “even though the urgency probably isn’t there quite as much as last year.”
Stephanie Webster, the owner of Oakley Wines in Cincinnati, told me that she’s already dotted the alleyway that abuts her restaurant with heaters for maximum warmth‚ but she’s not sure how many of her patrons will actually want to linger in the cold for chardonnay and charcuterie. The temperature has already sneaked into the 40s some nights, and she has seen just one-quarter of the outdoor diners she had at this point last year. Pisticci, a neighborhood Italian joint 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 blizzards to serve diners last winter, he’s setting boundaries this year. When it gets into the 20s or below, outdoor dining will be a no-go. “At a certain point, it becomes a staff safety issue,” he told me. “I don’t want anyone slipping on the deck.”
Restaurants aren’t ready to give up on street dining because, yes, plenty of Americans are still afraid to eat inside. Every week, the polling firm Morning Consult tracks public sentiments about going into restaurants. People are feeling better about eating inside now than they were in August, its surveys find, but still, as of last week, one-third of adults aren’t yet comfortable with the idea. That rate could still change quite a bit, depending on what happens to coronavirus cases, and how cold it gets, going forward. If yet another pandemic wave is on its way—unfortunately, a very real possibility—those street cafés could be fuller than you’d think. A really bad winter, though, could nudge diners through the door. “A lot of people need to rip the Band-Aid off,” Schmidt said. “Minus-12 will do that.”
Restaurants already have enough to worry about without trying to model pandemic curves come January, so many are giving their streeteries and backyard patios a much-needed glow-up ahead of what comes next. You’ll see lots of the threadbare blankets and barely heated wooden sheds from 2020, Henkes told me, but also more embellishments to make the experience cozier or just plain entertaining. That could mean more stunts akin to what one Bronx bar did last winter, using its allocated parking spaces to re-create the graffiti-laced interior of a subway car; or maybe restaurants will copy the example of one in a Colorado ski town, which turned old gondola cars into heated mini–dining rooms with room for eight.
Such upgrades don’t come cheap, though. Lots of establishments have an arsenal of heaters and patio furniture from 2020, but even very basic outdoor winter dining could be cost-prohibitive for many restaurants this year. Sidewalk heaters tend to run on propane, which hasn’t been this expensive since Barack Obama’s first term as president. Webster, of Cincinnati’s Oakley Wines, told me that fuel is now so expensive that if a customer orders a $13 glass of wine and then nestles under the blue flame for an hour, she is losing money on the whole affair. 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 another successful winter season, streeteries may go from pandemic stopgap measure to something we expect from cities. In a few years, America’s cities might have more permanent outdoor options on every corner. Alex Susskind, of Cornell, said he envisions a post-pandemic future in which outdoor dining isn’t always available, but comes back every year when the weather is nice.
But pop-up street dining takes up public space that could be used for many other things—and in ways that might be more community-oriented. A few cities have already come to that conclusion, clawing back the urban landscape from tables and chairs; and the opposition is mounting in other places too. NIMBYs want their neighborhoods clear of wooden shacks. Everyone wants to dismantle nesting sites for rats. “If opponents of these sheds can point to the fact that they’re no longer used this winter, then they can point to the idea of having them removed from the public sidewalk,” said Jerold Kayden, an urban-planning professor at Harvard. “If [outdoor seating areas] are not being used, even restaurant owners won’t want to maintain them.”
Street dining may even get roped into the country’s red-blue divide. Areas full of pandemic-wary liberals—and car-hating urbanites—might be poised to keep streeteries around a while longer, while red areas that are already back to normal ditch them for this winter and beyond. That would track with the restaurant recovery 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 goes from here. If customers are willing to endure sitting in the cold this winter, then streeteries are likely to endure through next spring and summer too, and maybe into the fall of 2022. At that point, they’ll have more than two years’ worth of squatters’ rights on city streets, and a chance of staying longer.
Saahil Desai is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy.
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