As COVID-19 closed and then partially reopened New York City restaurants for outdoor dining earlier this summer, Big Apple-based architecture and design firm Rockwell Group sat down at the drawing board. In collaboration with the New York City Hospitality Alliance, Rockwell Group founder, president and architect David Rockwell designed DineOutNYC, a modular outdoor dining system that was launched at six restaurants across the city on sidewalks and in curbside parking spaces. Yesterday, the pro bono program expanded to create communal dining spaces in neighborhoods most impacted by coronavirus shutdowns.
“Restaurants have never been more important to the vitality of our city. In addition to their importance to the local economy, they create a sense of urban vitality by serving neighbors and visitors and attracting people to different parts of the city,” says Rockwell in a statement about the vision behind the project he created. Inspired by open air cafes but designed as separated nooks with transparent partitions, the pop up dining areas allow patrons to enjoy a meal without compromising their health and safety. After interest spread following the initial six locations, his firm and the NYC Hospitality Alliance began a nonprofit and signed American Express, Moët Hennessy, Resy on as founding partners, and others for additional fiscal support, to assist hard-hit eateries at no cost. The first neighborhood to benefit is Chinatown, where the DineOut NYC system erected 120 seats today along the sidewalk from Mosco to Worth streets to serve the adjacent restaurants. Minneapolis-based furniture company Room & Board provided outdoor furniture and the Transfiguration School with artist Sammi Qu-Kwok and Think!Chinatown’s artist James Chan painted murals to spruce up the installations.
In addition to suffering economic downturn during the dining room shutdowns and stay-at-home order, businesses in Chinatown have seen racist patron flight due to the Chinese origin of the coronavirus. “Restaurants are the heart and soul of Chinatown, but they’ve been devastated for months due to the pandemic and the xenophobia that has grown with it,” explains Wellington Z. Chen, the executive director of Chinatown Business Improvement District/Partnership. After the Lunar New Year in late January when COVID-19 concerns began to trickle into the United States, Chinatown restaurants and retail shops saw a 40 to 80% drop in business, according to Restaurant Hospitality. Since then, across the city, many beloved eateries have closed due to the recessed economy and many more restaurant jobs have been lost.
For those that have survived thus far, on July 17, Mayor Bill de Blasio extended the Open Restaurants program, which allows outdoor dining rooms to stretch into car-free streets, through the end of October, an additional two months. The DineOut NYC program is currently considering additional neighborhoods to support with its no-cost communal dining areas. “What happens on our sidewalks and streets, we are learning, is critical to how we pull through this as a city,” says Rockwell. “It is a moment for us to rethink the value of urban space and ensure that it is used to the benefit of the city.”