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Schenectady weighs closing off streets for outdoor dining

Schenectady weighs closing off streets for outdoor dining

Officials: Measure would help restaurants rebound
Schenectady weighs closing off streets for outdoor dining
Aneesa Waheed of Tara Kitchen on Liberty Street believes customers will be comfortable with expanded outdoor dining.
Photographer: October 2019 file photo

As society begins to slowly whir back to life, Schenectady is considering how to utilize open space to better allow for outdoor and sidewalk dining.

City officials want to hear from restaurateurs as to how they can nimbly accommodate them once they are given the go-ahead to offer dine-in service. 

“If we can try to find a way to make it easier for business owners to use their parking lots for social distance dining, or use a little bit more of the sidewalk -- or possibly talk about side streets closing -- that would benefit some restaurants,” said city Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo. 

Bars and restaurants will be able to provide dine-in service in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, which could begin June 17 provided there are no spikes in hospitalizations, infections or deaths. 

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But businesses would have to adhere to strict sanitization and social distancing guidelines, including moving tables farther apart.

Tara Kitchen owner Aneesa Waheed said she’s carefully watching how the situation is playing out in the retail sector, which opened for indoor and curbside pickup last week, as well as in other states.

“Right now, everybody is walking blind and looking for ideas and options,” Waheed said. “It’s like survival mode.”

City Hall sits amid a European square-type setup with wide streets. 

Mayor Gary McCarthy said he's not opposed to allowing outdoor dining along Jay Street and on neighboring streets and sidewalks.

“I’m open to that,” McCarthy said.

Lawmakers want business owners to contact them with feedback.

Outdoor dining requires a permit if the seating encroaches on city property, but the city has waived the $250 application fee in order to allow fiscally-strapped businesses to better rebound.

While not comparable to Europe’s thriving sidewalk culinary culture, the Jay Street Marketplace does have between 10 and 15 tables dotted throughout the downtown strip. 

More tables would help boost curb appeal and help attract visitors, said Abby Rockmacher, president of the Jay Street Business Association. 

"It would be great if we could get more tables from the city so the whole street could be outdoor dining,” Rockmacher said. 

Waheed believes customers will be comfortable with outdoor dining, but each business needs to find the sweet spot in balancing service with ensuring safety of their employees and customers.

“I think every restaurant needs to figure it out for themselves,” Waheed said.

Lunchtime business was booming at Mami’s Restaurant on Crane Street last Friday.

“When people are home and not working, they tend to eat more,” said manager Fermin Fabian.

He has no immediate plans to replace the three tables he removed from the tiny restaurant.

“I’m going to stay takeout-only even when we reopen out of the safety of our employees and staff,” Fabian said. 

Setting up tables and chairs on the dense and narrow sidewalk outside would be an obstacle and safety hazard, he said. 

McCarthy acknowledged using city sidewalks outside of downtown and Upper Union Street is generally unfeasible.

But he left the door open to allowing businesses to set up tables and chairs in their parking lots. 

“Other venues throughout the city have parking spots and other spots they control,” McCarthy said, “and that would involve working with the city.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean restaurants can drag tables and chairs out into the parking lot and set up shop.

Businesses would need to calibrate how many tables they could provide without gobbling up the minimum number of parking spaces they must provide as part of city requirements.

City Corporation Council Andrew Koldin said he didn’t want to discuss hypotheticals.

“The city would have to review on a case-by-case scenario,” he said.

Connecticut allowed restaurants to open for outdoor dining last week and relaxed and suspended zoning regulations to facilitate the process, the Hartford Courant reported.

For safety measures, restaurants must stagger the beginning of shifts and break times, reduce capacity to 50 percent and rearrange work stations so employees don’t face one another. 

The New York State Restaurant Association pointed at those guidelines and urged New York to allow outdoor dining in the second phase, which could be as soon as June 3 in the Capital Region barring a setback.

NYSRA supports expanded outdoor dining capabilities, an emphasis on social distancing requirements over capacity limits and allowing continued sales of alcohol to-go.

“Just about every restaurant in the state is teetering on the edge of financial hardship and we need to do everything possible to keep them afloat,” said Melissa Fleischut, NYSRA’s president and CEO.

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