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Society

Athens’ New Mayor Wants Sidewalks Cleared of Restaurant Tables, Chairs

ATHENS – Athens new Mayor Haris Doukas will be the latest to try to stop the scourge of restaurants taking over public sidewalks the same way businesses cover public beaches with impunity, asking the Interior Ministry to increase fines.

He has limited authority over his own city, the state having more power over municipal policies in some areas, which means mayors have to ask for permission or assistance, including the case of restaurants blocking sidewalks, making pedestrians walk in streets.

Restaurants and eatery services are allowed to lease space on sidewalks but many just wake all of it or as much as they want, rarely fined or sanctioned with laws often flouted without consequences.

Doukas, from the PASOK Socialists, beat New Democracy incumbent Kostas Bakoyiannis who was trying to beautify the city that has buildings covered in graffiti, and told SKAI TV that inspections of sidewalks would be stepped up.

But he said fines are far lower than the profits made, much like penalties for tax evasions on islands such as Mykonos are so low compared to how much can be made that businesses pay them and don’t have to worry about being shut down.

In the case of Athens, that has seen businesses penalized but not being forced to remove the obstacles on the sidewalks and Doukas complaining that his hands have been tied in attempts to do something about it.

“Since January, we have done 2,000 checks. In the 1,000 cases we either imposed a fine or removed tables and chairs. But the problem is much deeper as the cost of fines is close to 1,000 euros to 1,500 euros a year. If you reduce it to a day, it is one coffee. Well, the caterer thinks, ‘This is the fine, I pay it and get 100 times the money,’” he said.

It wasn’t said whether he would also ask for the authority to suspend licenses or shut down businesses briefly or permanently as the New Democracy government is accelerating a recovery and is heavily pro-business.

If it’s not tables and chairs, it’s trees or housing steps sticking out that forces people to walk in the streets and take their chances on not being hit by vehicles, no government being able to keep restaurants from the practice.

Many sidewalks are in bad repair, with few ramps for people in wheelchairs or those using strollers or baby carriages and pedestrians have to navigate over broken or upturned slabs – and blocked by the tables and chairs frequently.

A survey by the National Technical University of Athens found that 39 percent of Athens’ sidewalks are less than one meter (3.28 feet) wide – minimum for wheelchairs, and poorly constructed and destroyed by  digging or illegal parking.

But even when fines are imposed, they are often ignored without further penalty. Of 1.5 million confirmed tickets issued by the municipal police in the three-year period 2020-2023, 1.2 million remained unpaid.

And 40 percent of food outlets and restaurants were  unlawfully occupying public space with tables and chairs, Athens losing 45 million euros ($48.78 million) in unpaid revenues and businesses thumbing their noses at penalties.

In 2023, 481,956 tickets were issued, of which 279,794 were verified and only 7,870 tickets were paid. That was when Bakoyiannis was in power and no reason given why they weren’t or why businesses weren’t closed or suspended.

More than 2,000 of the 5,194 inspections conducted by the municipal police in 2023 found space taken over unlawfully, just as with beaches, because there weren’t permits for use or the maximum allowed limit was often exceeded with impunity.

In 375 cases, tables were removed and in 31 of those they were allowed back after one to five days to again break the law. But even when an order is given to remove tables and the owner refuses to do so it can take months to force it to be done.

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