“They just don’t want people to be happy,” said Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis over a slice of authentic New York City pizza last month. “They,” in this case, were officials in New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, who had recently proposed a regulation that could cost the city’s traditional pizzerias considerable dough.
The proposed rule requires establishments that use coal- and wood-fired ovens to install new air-filtration systems. The ostensible reason is to reduce what the department describes as “harmful pollutants” by 75 percent. The systems cost about $20,000 per unit, require a city-approved feasibility study, and need regular maintenance once installed.
Department spokesman Ted Timbers called the proposal a “common-sense rule” and noted that it was developed in consultation with “restaurant and environmental justice groups”—not exactly the people most of us would care to have dictate our dietary options. Hardship cases among the 100 or so affected pizzerias may qualify for a waiver from the city government. Failure to comply could result in the closure of offending establishments. The department claims that the proposed rule, which must receive public comment before final approval, is consistent with Local Law 38, a carbon emissions-reduction ordinance the city passed in 2015 but delayed in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some pizzeria owners have grumbled that the rule is too burdensome or worse, that the new air-filtrations systems will alter the taste of their iconic pizza. Two attorneys with an interest in the matter have formed a New York City Pizza Alliance to resist the rule, which they describe as “a concerted effort to undermine and suppress the coal and wood-fired pizza business,” while a Republican city councilman claims that he is seeking a compromise.
Other opponents are more confrontational. The day after the regulation was announced, conservative artist and New York City native Scott LoBaido tossed 48 slices of pizza at City Hall, declaiming “Give us pizza, or give us death!” LoBaido added: “Destroying small business—that’s what this city keeps doing.”
The numbers suggest that LoBaido has a point. New York City leads the nation in business closures, with some 26,000 having disappeared between March 2020 and April 2022. Larger corporations still based in New York have instituted potentially permanent work-from-home policies or relocated personnel to places with friendlier tax, regulatory, or cost-of-living profiles. About half of New York’s commercial real estate remains vacant. But many small businesses, including pizzerias, don’t have the luxury of leaving town.
“This city was the greatest city—and the reason it’s not anymore is because the people who vote for the same garbage over and over again,” LoBaido said in a television interview. He was referring to his own dashed hopes that Mayor Eric Adams would be an improvement over his unpopular predecessor Bill de Blasio.
“We don’t want to hurt business in the city and we don’t want to hurt the environment,” Adams has said, though apparently, he expects small businesses to suffer for the sake of the environment. Virtue-signaling and the political contributions of the environmental lobby far outweigh the interests of a few dozen overburdened pizzerias. And going after pizzerias is much easier than solving the city’s more pressing problems, including rampant crime, which was up 30 percent in most categories in 2022.
Nevertheless, when food is at stake, New Yorkers are capable of rising up from their political apathy. In 2012, when then-mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on serving sweetened drinks in volumes over 16 ounces (with the city health board’s unanimous approval), the measure was immediately taken to court. After more than a year trying to fend off legal challenges, Bloomberg lost, and New Yorkers went back to ordering their Big Gulps.
In 2019, New York sought to ban foie gras, reportedly at the insistence of a radical animal rights organization that had contributed heavily to de Blasio’s reelection campaign. The same group had previously waged a successful eight-year legal battle to ban elephants and other large animals from New York circuses. After two years of litigation, however, the foie gras foes also failed in court, having inspired a diverse opposition, including upstate farmers, downtown restaurateurs, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, and even the French consulate.
The power of the city’s meddling class is strong, but as long as New Yorkers love their pizza, no one should assume that this battle is over.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images