Fresh calls to restrict alfresco dining in New York’s pandemic-era come as the city’s rat population surges.
This year saw the most reported rat sightings in at least a decade — with as many through July 2022 as all of 2020 or 2019. According to city data, more than 16,000 rats had been sighted through July 31, compared with just under 14,000 in the year same period last year. In both 2020 and 2019 there were approximately 16,000 documented rat sightings for the entire year.
Opponents of the outdoor dining program blame the explosion, at least in part, on unregulated structures created during the pandemic. Now that the emergency has subsided, they say the program has used up its reception. A lawsuit to end the program was filed last week.
“We haven’t seen any evidence of enforcement,” said Michael Sussman, an attorney representing dozens of residents opposed to the program. “They talk about how they want to modify the program … It’s really a recognition of how terrible the contingency program is when they keep it even when there’s no contingency.” Her position is paradoxical, she’s all over the map, she’s intellectually empty, and the people of New York City just deserve better.”
Sandy Nurse, a city council member representing District 37 and chair of the sanitation and waste disposal committee, said the outdoor food sheds can be rat magnets. “I believe the current design of most outdoor eating facilities is structure that allows rats to find safety, simply by design,” Nurse said.
But those defending the outdoor enclosures — including Mayor Eric Adams — point to the devastating blow the restaurant industry suffered when New York shut down during the worst of the pandemic.
“I’m a huge proponent of outdoor dining,” Adams said during a news conference Monday. “Our restaurant owners have been going through a very difficult time. Some of them are still behind in their payments. And whatever I can do to help our restaurant industry, which employs dishwashers, waiters, bus boys and girls – this is an important industry and indicator for our city.”
“The lawsuit will play itself out. But I am a believer in al fresco dining. I think we need to change something, you know, because some of the outdoor restaurants have become a hazard. They have become places that are not suitable. And I think there’s a way to modify, standardize, how the structures should look like.”
Benito Camacho, an exterminator at VJ Pest Management in Manhattan, said he’s never seen more rats in the city — both 24/7 and out. He’s been an exterminator for 15 years and sees about four times as many rats as before the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, many businesses, especially restaurants, were closed,” he said. “You know rats, they’re always looking for food. It made her wander the city.”
Eating outdoors also plays a role.
“All this leftover food goes under these things,” Camacho said. “She [the restaurants] could clean the tables and the sides but they don’t clean underneath because they can’t. But guess what? That’s what the rats do. They go underneath and clean everything.”
The city said in February it would continue to crack down on restaurants not following official guidelines, but some say they see no difference. The Department of Health is considering other solutions, such as a new rule for people and businesses to dispose of trash later.
“There is a lack of enforcement and accountability on the part of the New York City Department of Transportation, which is tasked with overseeing the program,” said Tonya Bonner, who filed an affidavit with the lawsuit last week.
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While the city still hasn’t established guidelines or clear rules for a permanent program, city inspectors have enforced the emergency program by issuing subpoenas to the least compliant restaurants. The city has removed 65 abandoned outdoor restaurants.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, challenged the idea that there is no enforcement.
“At first there was over-enforcement, then it got lax, but lately I keep hearing from restaurateurs about their outdoor catering being inspected,” said Rigie, “Nevertheless, it’s time to remove and update the unused outdoor catering.” the standards and requirements so that they can be met and enforced effectively and fairly.”
The rat problem was not enough motivation to quickly abolish the program. The restaurant industry, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, is still recovering.
“Until the city has a new program fully in place and operational, I think it has been reluctant to remove these scales given the potential for another wave, variant or increase, and now we’ll be moving into the colder months soon.” ‘ said sister.
“And so I think the unpredictability of the virus and the willingness of New Yorkers to take precautionary and safety measures meant that the city hasn’t cracked down on them as hard as it might under other circumstances.”
Daily News contributor Michael Gartland contributed to this story.