New calls to cut back pandemic-era outdoor dining in New York come as the city’s rat population is soaring.
This year has seen the most reported rat sightings in at least a decade — with as many through July 2022 as in all of 2020 or 2019. According to city data, through July 31 there have been more than 16,000 rat sightings, compared to just under 14,000 in the same time frame last year. In both 2020 and 2019, there were about 16,000 documented rat sightings for the full 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 is wearing out its welcome. A lawsuit seeking to end the program was filed last week.
“We’ve seen no evidence of any enforcement,” Michael Sussman, an attorney representing dozens of the residents opposed to the program, said. “They’re talking about how they want to modify the program… It’s really an acknowledgment of how awful that the emergency program is if they keep it in place, even if there’s no emergency. Their position is paradoxical, it’s all over the map, it’s intellectually vacuous, and the people in the city of New York simply deserve better.”
Sandy Nurse, a City Council member representing District 37 and the chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the outdoor dining sheds can be rat magnets. “I believe that the current design of most outdoor dining setups is a structure that allows rats to find safety, simply because of the design,” Nurse said.
But those who defend the outdoor corrals — including Mayor Eric Adams — point to the devastating hit the restaurant industry took as New York shut down during the worst of the pandemic.
“I’m a big supporter of outdoor dining,” Adams said, during a press conference Monday. “Our restaurant owners have gone through a very difficult period. Some of them are still behind in their payments. And whatever I can do to help our restaurant industry that employs dishwashers, servers, bus boys and girls — this is an important industry and it is an indicator of our city.”
“The lawsuit is going to play itself out. But I’m a supporter of outdoor dining. I think we need to modify, you know, because some of the outdoor dining locations have become a hazard. They have become places that are not suitable. And I think there’s a way to modify, to standardize what 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 on and off the clock. He’s been an exterminator for 15 years, and he sees about four times as many rats as before the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, a lot of businesses, especially restaurants, were closed,” he said. “You know rats, they always look for food. It made them migrate around the city.”
Outdoor dining plays a part, too.
“All that food residue, it goes underneath those things,” Camacho said. “They [the restaurants] might clean the tables and the sides, but they’re not cleaning underneath, because they can’t. But guess what? The rats are doing that. They go underneath and clean everything out.”
The city in February said it would crack down further on restaurants that didn’t comply with official guidelines, but some say they’re not seeing a difference. The Department of Sanitation is considering other solutions like a new rule that would have people and businesses put trash out later.
“There’s a lack of enforcement and accountability by the New York City Department of Transportation, which is supposed to oversee the program,” Tonya Bonner, who filed an affidavit with last week’s suit.
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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 summonses to the least compliant restaurants. The city has removed 65 abandoned outdoor dining structures.
Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, challenged the idea that there is no enforcement.
“At first there was excessive enforcement, then it became more lax, but more recently I constantly hear from restaurateurs about their outdoor dining being inspected,” Rigie said, “Nonetheless, it’s time to remove the outdoor dining that’s not being used, and update the standards and requirements so they can be complied with and effectively and fairly enforced.”
The rat issue has not been enough of a motivator to do away with the program quickly. The restaurant industry, one of the industries most hard-hit by the pandemic, is still bouncing back.
“Until the city is has a new program fully in place and implementable, I think there’s been hesitancy about removing these sheds because of potential for another wave, a variant or an increase and now, we’re going to be moving into the colder months soon,” Nurse said.
“And so I think the unpredictability of the virus and New Yorkers’ willingness to practice precaution and safety measures has led the city not to be cracking down as hard on them as they could in any other circumstance.”
Daily News staff writer Michael Gartland contributed to this story.