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The Boston Licensing Board Is Making It Easier for Restaurants to Create Outdoor Dining Spaces

The ability to serve diners outdoors will help restaurants contend with capacity caps when dining rooms are permitted to reopen

Several tables of customers sit outside at a restaurant. Servers are wearing masks and gloves. Pale green umbrellas, closed, stand among the tables.
Customers dine outside at a restaurant in May 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut, with staff in masks and gloves.
Greg Patton/Shutterstock

Last week, the Boston Licensing Board unanimously approved an emergency measure that will allow any restaurant in the city to quickly and easily apply to add outdoor seating to the establishment once dine-in service is permitted to resume. The measure — and the approvals issued under it — will remain valid for the duration of the public health emergency.

Under normal circumstances, restaurant operators are required to go through a lengthy process, which includes a public hearing as well as meeting with various neighborhood groups, whenever they want to make seating modifications. The licensing board’s action streamlines that process, eliminating both the neighborhood meetings as well as the public hearings. Restaurant owners can now file applications directly with the licensing board, which will make decisions at its weekly meeting.

When restaurants in Massachusetts are finally allowed to reopen for dine-in service, it is expected that they will be required to cap dining room capacities in order to enforce social distancing. Capping dining room capacities is a typical guideline in states that have already permitted restaurants to reopen for dine-in service. It’s likely that those caps would extend to outdoor dining as well.

Various restaurant owners have explained to Eater that opening with capacity caps will make it difficult to turn a profit, especially for restaurants with already small dining room capacities. Allowing restaurants to increase capacity by creating outdoor dining space where it didn’t previously exist will help mitigate some of the financial pain caused by capacity caps.

The earliest restaurants could reopen for dine-in service in Massachusetts is some time during the second week of June. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced that restaurants would reopen for dine-in service in phase two of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, which began on May 18. It’s possible that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh could extend the dine-in shutdown in the city after the governor lifts it statewide, so that date could be further out for restaurants in Boston proper. Walsh has already expressed that social distancing could continue for the next six or eight months, and he doesn’t expect that dine-in service will return at 100% capacity anytime soon.

Boston restaurants could look to restaurants in New Hampshire for outdoor dining guidance — as part of its reopening plan, the Granite State is allowing restaurants to get creative with their use of outdoor dining space, permitting businesses to transform patios, lawns, parking lots, and sidewalks into outdoor dinning areas. New Hampshire has not permitted restaurants to reopen indoor dining rooms, and it has capped capacity on outdoor spaces at 50 percent. Massachusetts hasn’t yet provided guidelines to restaurants for reopening dining rooms and outdoor dining spaces.

Of course, most restaurants in Boston don’t have the luxury of a lawn or a dedicated parking lot, but Walsh is considering pedestrianizing certain streets to make space for more outdoor dining.

“As summer approaches and the weather brings more people outdoors, and as we prepare for a phased reopening, we want to make sure we have enough space for safe distancing; we want to make sure our small businesses can get the support and space they need; and we want to make sure everyone has safe and healthy transportation options,” said Walsh during a May 11 press conference.

Boston isn’t the only municipality in Massachusetts considering outdoor dining as a solution to reopening restaurants following the COVID-19 surge. The town of Needham has set up picnic tables in the center of town so diners can enjoy takeout in a more social setting; town officials in North Attleboro are working with the restaurant community to devise a plan that would allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining rooms on several downtown streets from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays starting June 11; and Brockton Mayor Robert F. Sullivan recently filed a measure with the city council seeking to pass an ordinance allowing outdoor seating — for the first time ever — at all of the city’s restaurants.

“This is one of many steps we are undertaking to help our restaurants and cafes recover from the COVID-19 crisis and adapt to new social distancing rules,” Sullivan said in a press release. “It’s an important step, so that outdoor dining in the City of Brockton, which has never been allowed, can move forward. I look forward to getting the support of the city council and seeing patios open as our restaurants offer this new dining option.”

All that said, diners and restaurant workers are both still expressing reservations about returning to restaurants for dine-in service. It’s unclear whether doing so in outdoor spaces will mitigate some of that fear.

Boston Restaurants Can Get Emergency Approval to Add Outdoor Seating Once They’re Allowed to Re-Open for Diners [UH]
Massachusetts Restaurants Will Remain Closed for Dine-In Service Until at Least the Second Week of June [EBOS]
Where Restaurants Have Reopened Across the U.S. [E]
Massachusetts Restaurants Probably Won’t Reopen by May 18 — and Probably Shouldn’t [EBOS]
Restaurants Have Begun to Reopen, at Least for Outdoor Service, in Some New England States [EBOS]
Needham Sets Up Outdoor Areas for Diners Doing Takeout from Restaurants [BRT]
Al Fresco Dining May Be on the Menu in North Attleboro [SC]
By the Numbers: Here’s What Reopening America’s Restaurants Is Going to Look Like [E]

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