Dining al fresco is cool again. During the pandemic, when it became clear that the virus spreads through droplets and aerosols, many restaurants were permitted to re-open but only for outdoor dining.
Across the nation, streets were closed to vehicles to make way for tables and chairs. Sidewalks and parking lots, too, were transformed to become extensions of restaurants.
This has become both a blessing and a bane to people living with disabilities.
The Good and the Bad
The restaurant industry suffered massive losses in the past year because of the pandemic. Many had to close down and those that remained open had to serve takeout orders only. Outdoor dining was a way for restaurants to continue to welcome patrons without exposing them to COVID-19.
However, according to advocates, for people with disabilities, outdoor dining is a mixed bag.
On one hand, outdoor dining means people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids can easily access and move around the whole area. It is a dream. They no longer have to use a ramp, which can be steep in some places, to enter an establishment. They can also feel more comfortable because there is more than enough space for them and their mobility aids.
On the other hand, outdoor dining creates more new obstacles for people with disabilities. Because many restaurants have claimed portions of sidewalks for outdoor dining spaces, it has become more challenging for pedestrians to navigate. The chairs and tables now make sidewalks smaller and can become a risk for injuries. People with mobility issues or blindness expect the streets to be safe. Now, they are competing with diners and wait staff for the sidewalk.
In some places, restaurants completely block streets by placing tables and chairs for diners. The city placed barriers to prevent vehicles from passing through, which, unfortunately, also bars people with disabilities from using the space. As a result, those with mobility aids have to take longer routes to get to their destination.
One video went viral earlier this year that showed a person in a wheelchair trying to navigate sidewalks that have become dining areas. The sidewalk space for pedestrians became narrower, and they became like obstacle courses.
People with Disabilities Feel Excluded
People with disabilities already feel excluded when governments create new rules and policies for the entire population. The lack of access to sidewalks makes them more neglected.
Since the sidewalks have been blocked off, many people with disabilities decided to stay home. They rely on deliveries for food, or they have to drive to a store to buy household necessities.
This makes them more isolated. People with disabilities have been socially distancing for the past year because, in most cases, they are more at risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19. Now that some restrictions have reopened and they have received their vaccines, they want to go out, too. They want to go back to restaurants and spend time with their loved ones.
The popularity of outdoor dining has led to major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and England mulling over making it permanent. However, if outdoor dining is here to stay, it has to be inclusive to everyone, especially people living with disabilities.
Restaurants should free the sidewalk of any potential obstacles. Opt for awnings, for example, instead of free-standing umbrellas for sun cover. Search for “awning companies near me” online to see which option suits the business. Restaurants should also avoid leaving wires for heat lamps or outdoor lights, which can be tripping hazards, on the sidewalk. A patio built beside the sidewalk is also a better solution than using part of the pathway as a dining area.
Some businesses do not think that they have customers who live with disabilities. They, therefore, do not make changes to be more accessible. But, the reason why people with disabilities do not come to a business is because of inaccessibility. Inaccessible businesses lose potential customers due to the refusal to accommodate their needs.
The U.S. requires all businesses to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but few do. Aside from enforcement, businesses need help to create solutions to make outdoor dining more accessible to people with disabilities. City officials should consult with advocates to figure out how to include every community member in the new and better normal.
Many want to retain outdoor dining after the pandemic, but it should not be in the way of people with disabilities. It should be accessible to everyone, and it should not impede the movement and safety of people with mobility issues or blindness. There is a way to make accessible streets and outdoor dining co-exist, but it requires the cooperation of everyone.