Did you hear the good news? Restaurants are back to normal! I guess there is no need to clog public sidewalks with makeshift outdoor areas, right? Law?
Of course you know I’m wrong if you’ve tried walking through Center City lately. Not only is the hustle and bustle of the Philadelphians as normal as it has been for over a year, but we are now waiting for others to pass so we can stroll awkwardly by people clogging their faces.
First, why all guests find this variant outdoors – my effective interruption of their dinner so that I can pass by – is a mystery to me. On the other hand, I eat cheese steaks from the corner.
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Second, what do these restaurateurs think they are doing by effectively privatizing a public space to increase their capacity and also their revenue, while at the same time hindering our ability to drop by?
This is America. Everything has it’s price. And the people who pay for those so-called charming outdoor spaces held in by 2x4s with dorm accents are you and me.
We accept these outdoor locations and the congested streets that come with them at a great loss: public space that anyone can use, no matter who they are, how much money they have, or pretty much anything else to run their own business, be it commercial or personal.
Sidewalks are public spaces that must be maintained by the accompanying property owners. So while I’m on the hook to keep the path in front of my house shoveled after a blizzard, I can’t grow it and block it with my grill or seating because it’s a public space. It feels unfair until you realize how many houses you are walking past and why it is necessary to get to your job and then pay taxes. Try to attend a vaccination appointment without using a sidewalk.
In other words, public roads are necessary for our free society to function. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, in turn, place demands on governments, individuals and companies so that people with disabilities can better participate in this free society.
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So when a restaurant annexes entire sidewalks and uses COVID-19 as a cover for a privatization power, I have a problem with that. Is that even legal?
I asked the Kenney Administration (full disclosure, I worked in the Mayor’s Office 2016-2019 and then until recently the City Council) what was going on. Between the conversations, I learned that outdoor alternatives, including the permitted structures on sidewalks and the so-called “streets”, which provided restaurants with a lifeline during the quarantine, could be operated until the end of the year.
Given the dire impact COVID-19 has had on everyone, whether it’s the incalculable loss of over 600,000 American lives or the erosion of entire industries, such concessions are welcome and understandable. Finally, mortgage lenders let us defer payments. Landlords couldn’t evacuate us. Water flowed whether we paid our bills or not. Corporations deserve similar concessions. Whether these will continue or to what extent after December 31 is the responsibility of the public, the city council and the local restaurants.
Over the next few months, those of us interested in an egalitarian society will be paying attention to who gets greedy and who doesn’t completely block the sidewalk.
But in conversation with the city, I also learned that there must be an accessible pedestrian path at least two meters wide for outdoor dining, with space for pedestrians or wheelchair users. Anyone can report a violation to Philly 311. As things stand, that would be a lot of reports.
Here’s the thing, local restaurants. Over the next few months, those of us interested in an egalitarian society that invites everyone regardless of disability status or anything else will pay attention to whoever gets greedy and doesn’t completely block the sidewalk. It is unbridled greed to squeeze so many tables onto a sidewalk that people in wheelchairs or with other mobility impairments can’t get by. Civil rights take precedence over economics.
I promise, in my case at least, I won’t be against making these outdoor areas permanent – as long as you can get a wheelchair through at night.
But if facilities continue to abuse this program, I won’t just dream of putting an ax on your awnings. Instead, I and many others call our city councils every day to point out that accessibility is not a benefit, but a civil rights issue, and urge the city to end this program – be it for you or for everyone.
Josh Kruger is an award-winning (and losing) writer based in Philadelphia.