Restaurants and bars in several neighborhoods participating in New York City’s Open Streets program rebounded at more dramatic rates than others during the first year-and-a-half of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report out Tuesday.
The report from the city’s Department of Transportation found that four Open Street corridors — where car traffic was restricted during designated times in Astoria, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and Manhattan’s Koreatown — outperformed their pre-pandemic business in the first 18 months after the arrival of COVID-19.
A fifth stretch in Chinatown was the only one of the five corridors that saw a decrease in sales during that period: 8%. But the report notes that it saw a smaller decline than the rest of the borough, with Manhattan seeing a 22% decline on average and a 31% dip for establishments along a “control corridor,” a nearby location without restrictions from Open Streets.
“Cars don’t shop or dine out. People do,” said Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez at a Tuesday press conference in Chinatown, adding that the Open Streets program is here to stay.
Throughout the city, restaurants and bars along Open Streets corridors saw an average 19% increase in sales compared to their own pre-pandemic levels. Nearby control streets saw a decline of 29%.
The report based its Open Streets findings on taxable sales reported to the Department of Finance from March 1, 2020 to Aug. 31, 2021. The biggest winner of the program appeared to be Astoria: businesses saw a 44% increase in taxable sales in comparison to the three years leading up to the pandemic, starting in February 2017.
Open Streets has been the city’s main vehicle for expanding outdoor dining since its rollout in 2020. While embraced by many New Yorkers, from businesses deeming it critical to their survival and residents eager to dine out, particularly during the pandemic’s early months, it has also prompted pushback from some who say the prevalence of outdoor dining has had some undesired consequences, like feeding the city’s rat problem.
Still, both majoral administrations that have passed the baton on Open Streets — former Major Bill de Blasio and now-Major Eric Adams — have been publicly invested in its long-term success.
“There was so much doom and gloom over the past couple years throughout the pandemic, and one of the real bright spots was Open Streets,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents the city’s restaurants and nightlife establishments. “It was outdoor dining.”
Establishments on Open Streets corridors surpassed others in terms of sales growth, the opening of new restaurants and bars and the percentage of existing businesses to operate during the pandemic, according to the report.
Businesses were more likely to continue to file taxes — a sign of continuing operations — if they were on one of the Open Streets corridors reviewed for Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The difference was most stark in Manhattan — with 86% of businesses on Open Streets corridors continuing to file, compared with 67% on control streets.
The two locations in Brooklyn retained 88% of filing businesses, compared to 80% on control streets; Queens saw a 10% difference, with 92% of establishments on Open Streets still filing.
“This turned into a mini Paris,” said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, as he spoke about Doyers Street, a narrow, curved one-block street that’s home to the Nom Wah Tea Parlor and other famous haunts. “It’s like setting up a street fair every day.”
The Fifth Avenue corridor in Park Slope, Brooklyn, saw a 26% increase in taxable sales, the report shows, once again surpassing the borough average. A nearby control street fared worse, seeing a 6% decrease in sales.
Chinatowns across the US, including New York’s famed cultural enclave in Lower Manhattan, have suffered a significant blow from the pandemic. Many restaurant owners have pointed to xenophobia fueled by the first known appearance of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China that has been detrimental to business, and has made it challenging to recover more than two years after restaurants in New York shut down.
And some residents deem the Open Streets program essential to ensure their neighborhoods’ futures. Chinatown resident Edward Ma, who sits on the local community board, shouted down Rodriguez after he’d finished speaking, asking him to expand the program from Doyers Street to Mott Street around the corner.
“It would be more people coming here, more business, more chimore prosperity,” Ma said.