Q. Now that COVID-19 restrictions are loosened and restaurants are open again, I invited a friend to a neighborhood restaurant where we could eat outside. The restaurant is only three blocks away from where I live, but we were only able to go one block because another restaurant had extended its outdoor seating so far into the sidewalk that I could not get past it in my power wheelchair. I had to backtrack and then ride in the street for a block.
I want to easily navigate my neighborhood like I used to before the pandemic. I support the reopening of businesses — especially outdoor dining. I worry, however, that continued expansion onto the sidewalks will further impede my path of travel. Is it legal for restaurants to block my access route? Should I report the offending restaurant to anyone? I am reluctant to talk to the restaurant manager because I’m not clear about the requirements.
— Hungry Quad
A. Many localities have waived policies in order to allow restaurants to expand their outside seating, with the goal of helping these businesses offset limitations on indoor capacity while offering customers safer dining options. However, as outdoor dining increases, some businesses are expanding seating into legally-required accessible paths of travel, even unlawfully converting their accessible parking spaces into patio seating or curbside-pickup areas. In some cases, newly incorporated spacing to increase distances between tables is preventing people with disabilities from being able to navigate public sidewalks. Even if restaurants expand their sidewalk seating, the Americans with Disabilities Act, as a general rule, requires them to maintain a 3-foot-wide clear pathway.
It is not permissible for restaurants to impede your path on the sidewalk and thus prevent you from getting through. However, many business owners are unaware of this requirement.
You have a variety of options:
1. You can arrange to talk to the manager and calmly make them aware that while you support local businesses and increased outdoor seating, the restaurant is required to follow the ADA. Because of the blocked sidewalk, you had to risk your safety by riding out in the street to get to your destination.
2. If the manager is defensive or says you are wrong, you can report the incident to your local county or town and file a complaint. You can go so far as to file a complaint for an ADA violation with the U.S. Department of Justice, but that will likely take a long time to process and therefore not resolve your immediate problem.
3. Another option is to research online resources of disability organizations such as United Spinal Association, which produced an informative guide called, “Reopening Your Business in a COVID World: Safeguarding Accessibility/ADA Compliance.” You can take the initiative and share this guide, which is available as a PDF download, with the restaurant, local business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and even appropriate policymakers in your town or county. You might also consider contacting United Spinal or other such organizations directly.
Because COVID-19 is such a new issue, many businesses and other establishments are not aware of how to adapt in a way that is accessible and ADA compliant. In a best-case scenario, you can resolve the problem with the restaurant directly. The restaurant owner may be relieved that you have made them aware of this requirement and change the outside seating so you can get by. Maybe the restaurant will even gain you as a customer if it promptly fixes the problem. But please remember that it is not mandatory that you take this on. Advocacy is an individual choice, although it is usually the right one.