Two Bay Ridge lawmakers are calling on city transportation officials to waive fines issued to restaurants as a result of shifting outdoor dining regulations at a time when many local eateries are struggling to stay afloat.
“Safety comes first, so we understand that the city may need to adjust its guidelines after administering this program so rapidly. But restaurants should not be fined when the goalposts are still shifting,” said City Councilman Justin Brannan. “The Open Restaurants program is supposed to help restaurants get back in the green — saddling them with fines is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.”
Brannan is joined by State Senator Andrew Gounardes in his call for leniency, which comes on the heels of a statewide shutdown of most businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19 — and of borough restaurants being threatened with heavy fines because their outdoor dining spaces no longer complied with the adjustments made to the original guidelines.
“It is outrageous to cause local restaurants, already struggling to stay in business, to have to spend thousands of extra dollars to comply with changing guidelines,” Gounardes said. “The city must forgive any fines levied under this program and commit to clear, consistent guidelines going forward.”
In recent weeks, restaurants found out of compliance have been told they have 24 hours to bring their outdoor dining areas to code, which some owners told Brooklyn Paper cost them additional hundreds of dollars on top of the original costs of building the space.
“We spent a couple of thousand dollars on everything else,” said Antonio Viscoso, owner of Vesuvio, an Italian restaurant on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge. “Then, I think we spent another $1,200 on umbrellas and weighted stands.”
Though Viscoso was not hit with heavy fines, he was told the outside tents he had purchased for outdoor dining were out of compliance and after purchasing umbrellas to use instead, he was told the outdoor tents would be permitted.
“We had a tent, we had to take the tent down, then we bought the umbrellas and after that, we were told the tents were good,” Viscoso said. “But we had already given our tents away.”
Overall, the owner said, he is pleased with the city’s outdoor dining regulations and how quickly officials were able to roll them out as the switch to al-fresco dining provides a much-needed source of revenue for local businesses following the months-long shutdown.
“I am pretty satisfied with it, there was bit of bouncing back and forth, but once everything worked out — it’s not a bad thing,” Viscoso said. “They extended outdoor dining until October 31st, like everyone else it’s better than nothing. It’s nice to have people sit, relax and have a good time again.”
In the meantime, Brannan and Gounardes urge any local business owner who receives a fine for their outdoor dining setup to reach out to either of their offices.
“I understand this program is brand new and was enacted at a frenetic pace. I also understand the need to get the guidelines right,” Brannan said. “Fines should be forgiven, and if guidelines change yet again, then business owners need to be given more time to fix – otherwise we are hurting our small businesses and this program was supposed to help them get through this tough time.”