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NYC eateries fear ‘devastating drop in business’ this winter if de Blasio punts on propane heater permit

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 10/10/2021 Chris Sommerfeldt

New York City restaurant and bar owners fear that their bottom line could freeze up this winter if Mayor de Blasio doesn’t renew an emergency permit allowing them to use propane heaters for outdoor service.

The permit, first issued by de Blasio in October 2020, lifted a ban on portable propane heaters to help keep eateries and watering holes open at a time when indoor service was prohibited because of COVID-19. But the waiver expired over the summer, and de Blasio has not said whether he’ll roll out another one ahead of this cold season.

Propane heaters warm patrons at the The Grisly Pear in Manhattan on Feb. 7, 2021. © Provided by New York Daily News Propane heaters warm patrons at the The Grisly Pear in Manhattan on Feb. 7, 2021.

Propane heaters warm patrons at the The Grisly Pear in Manhattan on Feb. 7, 2021. (Alexi Rosenfeld/)

James Mallios, owner of Amali, a Mediterranean restaurant on the Upper East Side is concerned.

Mallios said the propane heater permit was “one of the few bright spots” during the pandemic and that his restaurant would’ve gone belly up without it.

“Without exaggeration, if we did not have propane heaters last season we would be out of business,” said Mallios, who estimated he could lose nearly half of his 75-seat capacity if he can’t have propane heaters this winter.

Mallios is one of 85 restaurant and bar owners who sent de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson a letter in April, pleading to keep propane heaters burning this winter.

Neither men responded to the note, Mallios said. “That was disheartening,” he added.

James Mallios © Provided by New York Daily News James Mallios

James Mallios

Raffaello Van Couten, founder of Dolly’s Swing and Dive bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said more than half of his business already comes from outdoor customers and envisions that will continue through the winter if he can keep his propane burners.

“We’re used to this income because a lot of people are still concerned about being inside,” said Van Couten. “The public perception is that they have a safe place to go if there’s heaters, and if they don’t have that, I think we will see a really devastating drop in business. It’s a make or break for us.”

Before de Blasio’s emergency permit, propane heaters were long prohibited in commercial and hospitality settings due to fire hazards.

Raffaello Van Couten, owner of Dolly's Swing and Dive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. © Provided by New York Daily News Raffaello Van Couten, owner of Dolly's Swing and Dive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Raffaello Van Couten, owner of Dolly's Swing and Dive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

FDNY data shows there have been no propane-related explosions or fires at any city restaurants or bars since de Blasio’s order, which specified that heaters could only be placed on sidewalks, not near street seating.

Still, FDNY inspectors have issued more than 1,200 propane compliance violations and confiscated at least 1,000 improperly stored tanks since the ban was lifted, according to the data.

“In some of the most egregious incidents, 20-pound containers of propane were found on roadways, concealed by planters and other objects designed to provide vehicle impact protection,” said Frank Dwyer, an FDNY spokesman.

Jason Birchard, owner of Veselka in Manhattan's East Village. © Provided by New York Daily News Jason Birchard, owner of Veselka in Manhattan's East Village.

Jason Birchard, owner of Veselka in Manhattan's East Village.

Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for de Blasio, said the mayor hasn’t ruled out allowing propane heaters again this year and is “closely reviewing the fire safety implications.”

“Electric and natural gas heaters will be fair game no matter what,” Schwartz said.

Restaurant owners said electricity and natural gas are poor substitutes for propane.

Jason Birchard, owner of Veselka, in the East Village, said electric and natural gas heaters are not only far more expensive to run and install — they also don’t provide much warmth.

“The electric heaters are good in enclosed booths, but on the sidewalks? Forget about it. It’s like day and night,” Birchard explained.

Heaters warm people in outdoor seating at Wogies in Manhattan's West Village on Feb. 7, 2021. © Alexi Rosenfeld Heaters warm people in outdoor seating at Wogies in Manhattan's West Village on Feb. 7, 2021.

Heaters warm people in outdoor seating at Wogies in Manhattan's West Village on Feb. 7, 2021. (Alexi Rosenfeld/)

Van Couten agreed and said last winter “proved we can safely use propane.”

“Clearly the fire concerns have to be diminished by the fact that we went through a whole season without any issues,” he said.

If de Blasio doesn’t issue another propane permit, Van Counten fears the worst.

“It will be going back to trying to negotiate with the landlords that we can’t pay rent, telling our staff that we don’t have enough shifts for them — it will become a nightmarish thing again,” he said. “After all that we’ve gone through, it just doesn’t make any sense. It feels like there’s no one on our side.”

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