A car slammed into an outdoor dining area on the Upper East Side on Monday night, leaving diners with minor injuries and a driver was taken to the hospital. It was the latest accident involving expanded al fresco seating amid mounting calls from the restaurant industry to develop some timeline for dine-in in the city.
In Monday's crash, police say an Uber driver was near East 92nd Street and Second Avenue when another vehicle struck his car and sent it spinning into diners at DiLizia's outdoor seating are. The Uber driver says he wasn't injured but his car took major damage. Pieces of his vehicle were all over the street and sidewalk.
A couple who say they had just finished eating and paid their bill say they heard a loud noise. The next thing they knew, they were running for their lives.
"We chose the side street thinking it was safer," Father George Baker tells NBC New York. "I grabbed her, and we ran up here. Glass, everything followed us. So we're glad we're sitting here to tell you about it."
One of the drivers and two customers leaving the restaurant suffered minor injuries in the incident. It's unclear if any charges will be filed against the driver.
Due to restaurants being forced to only offer outdoor dining because of the pandemic, diners like Baker are often worried about car accidents like these.
Just last month, an out-of-control truck plowed into the outdoor dining area of a Sunset Park restaurant sent three people to the hospital. A few weeks before that, a driver who fainted at the wheel crashed into the outdoor seating at a restaurant in Waldwick, New Jersey, but no one was injured in that incident.
Still, with thousands of outdoor dining areas throughout the city, there have only been five incidents involving drivers thus far. The owner of DiLizia said that he will start using his car as an additional barrier to protect customers.
New York City set up rules for restaurants creating partitions for dining areas in city streets: The dividers must be at least three feet tall and 18 inches wide. Some eateries, like 70-year-old Donohue's Steakhouse on the Upper East Side, spent more and invested in industrial-sized partitions that weigh 650 pounds each — but the owner said it's worth the money.
"The only way to make a living being a mom-and-pop store is to go full blast outside. We built our platforms in two days, and started doing business," said Maureen Donohue-Peters, who runs the restaurant. "My theory was to be safe for my customers. My customers are the number one thing."
There is currently no timeline for the return of indoor dining, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeated the same, saying evidence shows it poses heightened COVID exposure risk -- a threat the densely populated former epicenter of the national crisis cannot afford.
"We haven't been able to set a firm standard because we see a problem and challenge here," de Blasio said Tuesday when asked about a plan for indoor dining.
The restaurant industry has been pushing for at least some timeline in recent weeks. Restaurateur Danney Meyer was the latest to do so Tuesday, saying the outdoor initiative has opened up positive opportunities but it won't work forever.
"I’m also enjoying NYC’s sidewalk dining scene, but it’s important to recognize that most restaurants are primarily doing so to rehire their teams and to show a sense of civic pride," Meyer tweeted. "On its own, it’s not a sustainable business model and we’ll need to figure out indoor dining soon."
Aside from the dangers of bad driving or accidents, restaurant owners are eager for a return to indoor dining because the potential for bad weather in the fall and winter months is more likely to cause problems for them than anything else.
"We've been doing what we can, but we don't know what's going to happen when the weather changes," said Leticia "Skai" Young, who own's Lolo's Seafood Shack in Harlem and said they've done quite well with outdoor dining — but questions how long it can last. "How much longer can the restaurants that even made it to this phase, hold on?"
And while restaurants sit by and watch things like gyms and bowling alleys get the green light to reopen indoors, they are left to wonder: When's our turn?
"The fact that we're being told nothing, that's the scariest and hardest part," said chef and restaurateur Marc Forgione. "I would just at least like to see ideas on board, as opposed to 'we don't have a plan.'"