When the shutdowns end, America will reopen with a set of restrictions that seem designed to leave most cities closed for the foreseeable future.
Restaurants and bars, in particular, will have trouble handling the new rules. In Texas, for example, restaurants may reopen on Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent capacity. Anyone who has ever waited tables will tell you that is not a sustainable business model. It’s hard enough in sprawling Houston, where bars are being outfitted with Plexiglas protectors. It would be nearly impossible at storefront restaurants in cities like San Francisco or Hoboken, where the governors of California and New Jersey have floated similar protocols for reopening.
Fortunately, almost every restaurant in America has the ability to quadruple its footprint overnight, with one weird trick: putting tables in the parking lot.
Few businesses are obligated to build as much parking as restaurants. Most city codes force restaurant owners to provide 10 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of restaurant—or approximately three times as much room for cars as for the diners who drove them. In normal times, this policy has many negative consequences: It makes running a restaurant more expensive, uses up an enormous amount of land, and creates a landscape checkered with asphalt that’s hard to navigate on foot.
In pandemic times, the asphalt shadows that adjoin most businesses could come in handy. What we know about the coronavirus suggests that it is mainly transmitted indoors, between people in close proximity, and that its transmission seems to slow in warmer weather. The summer, then, offers us an opportunity to restart social life in a way that reduces the odds of coronavirus transmission twice over, by keeping diners outside and well-spaced.
In Brookhaven, a suburb of Atlanta, Mayor John Ernst has given restaurants permission to turn their parking into restaurant space. “For the next 90 days, Brookhaven will embrace alfresco dining,” he said.
Do Americans want to eat in the parking lot? Frankly, it sounds weird, but then so did being locked in the house for two months during a global pandemic. What if it’s hot? What if it rains? Sounds bad, but not as bad as sitting next to the wall-mounted air conditioner that seems to have given 10 people the coronavirus at a Guangzhou restaurant. At any rate, at 25 or 50 percent capacity, the indoor restaurant experience will be far from normal, too.
Other activities are already taking advantage of America’s surplus asphalt, starting with coronavirus testing. Chris Escobar, who runs a movie theater in Atlanta, has converted his cinema into a drive-in, with the sound transmitted by FM radio. Churches from Virginia Beach to Sturgeon Bay have held services in the parking lot, with invocations to honk once for “Amen” and twice for “Glory hallelujah.” On Easter Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska, the Rev. Greg Griffith told honking parishioners at King of Kings Church, “I love that we just broke Satan’s eardrums.” In Orange County, California, clerks are marrying quarantined couples in the parking lot of the Honda Center. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has granted gun sellers permission to sell firearms in their parking lots. In Philadelphia, the school district suggested kids without internet at home could come do their virtual learning in school parking lots. And in Chicago, with the city’s popular lakefront closed, kids are playing in parking lots instead.
The smallest restaurants—the ones for which distancing restrictions are the least realistic—may not have dedicated parking at all. But they have an even better option for summer dining: transforming street parking or lanes of traffic—or even whole streets—into extended café terraces. The Lithuanian capital of Vilnius has opened 18 public spaces for restaurant terraces, where tables must be spaced six feet apart. More than 160 operators have applied.
The taking of parking spaces for more valuable uses has been underway for decades. The foundational arbitrage behind the food truck was the realization that commercial rent is expensive and parking virtually free. In cities like San Francisco and Seattle, restaurants have been able to expand their commercial space into “parklets” next to their storefronts. A stretch of asphalt that once served to park a Honda Accord can comfortably seat a dozen people.
Social distancing will require more space. The wave of traffic washing out of cities has quickly exposed how much car use distorts everyday life—the filthy, hazardous air, the constant noise, the tens of thousands of deaths and injuries. Nothing is so sharply revealed as the amount of space we have surrendered to the automobile. Park Avenue used to be an actual park!
Dozens of cities have used the pandemic to reclaim space for people that was given away a century ago, inaugurating play streets and bike lanes and pedestrian boulevards. Hard-hit European cities are looking ahead. Milan is redesigning 22 miles of streets in an attempt to keep traffic down when life returns to normal. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is building bike lanes to mirror the capital’s busiest metro lines, in an attempt to keep traffic at bay as daily life slowly resumes in the French capital this month.
Streets for people have been one of the few charms of a frightening moment, but they won’t last. When the shutdown ends, traffic will come crashing down as transit commuters ditch buses and trains for their personal social-distance boxes. The stakes are especially high in New York City, the global epicenter of the virus. New Yorkers desperately need their city to get back up and running. There are many impediments to that, but the space to keep diners distant should not be one of them: Thirty-six percent of Manhattan is street space. It’s the most valuable land in the world, and the city gives it away for free, provided you use it for nothing but your car.
What if we instead gave it for free … to restaurants and bars?
Crammed along a sidewalk narrowed a century ago for thru traffic and browbeaten by an unelected community board that rations sidewalk seating like there’s a table shortage, a New York restaurant is more likely to be owned by a guy named Al Fresco than to offer outdoor dining. The city should give restaurants the chance by closing popular streets to traffic entirely and lifting permit applications and fees for outdoor tables. Fire trucks and ambulances need not worry: Diners will get out of their way. Gridlock will not.
“We have an incredible opportunity to reimagine how we use public space to support our small businesses, our small restaurants and neighborhood pubs, and fortunately we are entering the warmer months of the year,” says Andrew Rigie, the director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a restaurant trade group that is pushing for the city to relax outdoor permitting rules. “We need to think big picture.”
Yes, this will be disruptive—and that’s a good thing. Tourists will be wary of visiting New York, and restaurants will need all the business they can get. Make eating in New York this summer a pleasure and a spectacle: Pizza in the now-empty avenues, the sound of tires and car horns replaced by the rattle of crockery and the hum of voices. We should do more than make it possible to eat outside—when it’s time to reopen, we should make the post-pandemic restaurant something no one will want to miss.