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Photo: Angélica Acevedo/QNS
Las Margaritas restaurant on 83-22 37th Ave. in Jackson Heights.

The 37th Avenue Sidewalk Cafe Coalition wants to make outdoor dining a fixture along Jackson Heights’ commercial corridor.

The coalition created a petition to garner support for their call to the city to create permanent outdoor dining permits that would “allow food service establishments to serve food and beverages in an approved open space.” 

Alfonso Quiroz, the founder of the 37th Avenue Sidewalk Cafe Coalition, said he’s gathered 300 signatures on the online and print petitions so far.

“There used to be discussions about this years ago but it never happened,” Quiroz said. “It would be ideal for businesses here, but permit costs are a lot, and it doesn’t include other costs like building structure and architecture costs. These are very small businesses. They’re mom-and-pops. It was too much for them even before the pandemic.”

Although outdoor dining is still in its early stages, Quiroz believes the city should reduce the fees it had in place prior to implementing Open Restaurants. The Open Restaurants program allows restaurants to self-certify for sidewalk and curbside seating, with no application fees.

Prior to the city easing restrictions on sidewalk seating, restaurants had to apply for two-year license fees of $500, which doesn’t include other fees like a $1,500 security deposit and application fee.

Quiroz said that while the fees alone present challenges for small business owners, some mom-and-pop shops in Jackson Heights also have a difficult time applying for the permits.

“We want to cut through the red tape that exists now,” Quiroz said. “The city should make it easier and accessible for people who do not speak English — but it isn’t even a language barrier issue, it’s that most of our business owners don’t have the technology to access the forms to fill out. They’re usually trying to access them on their phones.”

For many restaurants and cafes, outdoor dining has presented a way to sustain their business during the COVID-19 pandemic. But without indoor dining — which has been postponed indefinitely due to spikes of coronavirus cases in other parts of the country — and added safety measures to prevent the further spread of the virus, there’s still a lot of barriers for food establishments in the time of COVID.

Open Restaurants will continue until the fall. The city even combined Open Restaurants with Open Streets, to help restaurant corridors in the five boroughs have more space for seating right on the street.

When asked about 37th Avenue Sidewalk Cafe Coalition’s petition, a spokesperson for the Department of Small Business Services pointed to how they are currently working to enlist as many bars and restaurants to the city’s outdoor dining programs, training city employees to distribute updated guidance to encourage and enforce restaurant compliance, and partnering with local businesses to distribute personal protective equipment.

“The outdoor dining program enlivens our commercial corridors and provides businesses with a much-needed opportunity to generate further revenue while social distancing,” the spokesperson stated. “We are increasing our efforts to ensure more restaurants participate in the Open Restaurant program.”

But come winter, it’s still uncertain what dining will look like. That’s why Quiroz is calling on City Council to look ahead.

“We want this to be a catalyst for a larger conversation, so the city allows sidewalk seating next spring,” Quiroz said.

Jackson Heights Councilman Daniel Dromm told QNS he supports the idea.

“Many of these businesses are immigrant owned and were just getting by to begin with before COVID,” Dromm said. “Having outdoor dining areas on 37th Avenue will help them moving forward, and it’s just great for the community. It’s wonderful to see.”

Dromm said fellow Council member Carlina Rivera is working on keeping the program as is for next year, and has support from Speaker Corey Johnson.

“We’re pushing the mayor and DOT to get on board,” Dromm said.

While Quiroz continues to walk up and down 37th Avenue collecting signatures to present to the City Council in the fall, he’s also giving out thousands of face masks thanks to a partnership with the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

“Thirty-seventh Avenue really is a lifeline for us,” Quiroz said. “The majority of our shops are small businesses, and they got hit very hard by [COVID-19]. We want to help them survive … because they hire locals and it’s good for the community. We also want to give residents an option to eat out safely.”

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