“We can only rely on the weekends now,” said Kevin Zheng, owner of Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine.
Located on the intersection of Mott and Pell streets in Chinatown, Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine finally received approval by the Department of Transportation to set up outdoor dining in mid-August, after weeks of delays. However, with fall temperatures and having to adhere to strict seating guidelines on Mott Street, restaurants are concerned they won’t be able to survive, some opting to ignore location and capacity restrictions instead.
According to Karlin Chan, community activist and founder of Chinatown Block Watch, a neighborhood patrol, due to DOT’s restricted rules on outdoor sitting areas, there were only three restaurants near Mott Street that had approved outdoor setups when New York City initially launched the Open Restaurant program in late-June, an initiative that allows restaurants to use sidewalks and roadways to serve customers dining outside.
The program hasn’t been so helpful for restaurants, according to Chan, “Because many of them couldn’t make a profit with only two or three tables outside.”
He said that’s why many restaurants are now hoping to bring in more business by expanding their outdoor dining spaces when Mott Street is closed to traffic on the weekends.
“Our business has decreased by 50%,” said Zheng. “With only six tables, I can barely afford the rent and the employees.” Before the pandemic, Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine had 20 indoor tables filled with customers, said Zheng. But he had no choice but to violate DOT’s outdoor occupancy rules, he said. The restaurant is now set up for 20 tables outside, from Friday to Sunday, when Mott Street is closed to car traffic. Zheng said DOT continues to send inspectors and notices of non-compliance.
“But it’s the only way to maintain the business,” said Zheng. “Even so, we don’t know how long we can last.”
Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine is not the only restaurant in Chinatown trying to work around the outdoor dining rules.
Cha Chan Tang, a Hong-Kong style restaurant on 45 Mott St., received three cease-and-desist orders from DOT in the past month for exceeding capacity.
Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, in a local news report, weighed in on the situation at Cha Chan Tang. “The restaurant had to move their stands and their outdoor sittings back and forth over five times now.”
“The fire lane is at our storefront, so we are not allowed to set up outdoor tables like most restaurants do,” said Sam Ling, an employee at Cha Chan Tang. “We had to talk with the merchants across the street to lend their storefront space to us.”
With the help of the store owners across the street, Cha Chan Tang now has five tables in front of a gift shop and a grocery store. However, according to DOT’s Outdoor Dining Sitting Area Requirements, restaurants are not allowed to occupy another storefront space, even if approved by the owners. If that provision is violated, DOT has the right to terminate or suspend Cha Chan Tang “without prior notice.”
While restaurants like Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine and Cha Chan Tang are fighting to stay open, some restaurant owners are exhausted and have chosen to significantly scale back.
“I can’t afford servers’ salaries anymore. Had to lay off all of them. Now we run the restaurant with the help from family members and relatives,” said Xinhe He, manager and owner of Canton Lounge.
Canton Lounge, located on 70 Mott St., used to have 17 indoor tables before the pandemic. Now He only sets up three outdoor tables due to a staffing shortage. He said he is aware of the struggles that many other restaurants owners have due to the limited outdoor dining space, but he has no plans to add more curbside tables for his restaurant.
Zheng said business owners in the area are divided on the issue of street closures for expanding outdoor seating.
“Some of them, they just don’t care,” said Zheng.
Zhuoxun Li, chairman of the Chinatown Central District Alliance, is against the street closures. He said he spent two days going door-to-door to ask merchants to sign a petition in opposition to the street closure proposal.
“Everyone universally agrees that they want everything to remain the same,” said Li. “There are a lot of businesses that are not just restaurants. There are other businesses, like grocery stores and stores that sell goods. They rely on people who have a car. People want to drive in. They are not going to carry all the things to subway or walking home.”
However, a poll conducted by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, one of the oldest and largest community organizations in Chinatown, shows that 54 out of 60 merchants support street closures on the weekends.
A group of elected officials, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou and State Senator Brian Kavanagh, visited Mott Street on August 19 to listen to business owners.
“For Chinatown’s businesses to thrive, NYC needs to open up more streets,” said Velazquez, chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, in a Tweet after a visit to Chinatown in August.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City will allow 25% of indoor dining starting on September 30.
“I think if the (infection) level remains the same, or maybe even going down a little bit, they’re gonna allow 50%,” said Chan. “We’ll wait and see. Just keep hope alive.”