The City of Boston is continuing its COVID-era outdoor dining program for 2022, utilizing public spaces to a greater extent than in non-pandemic times and streamlining the application process, but certain restrictions and fees targeting just the North End has left restaurants in the historical neighborhood fuming — and possibly suing.
Mayor Michelle Wu announced the continuation of the program on February 24, 2022, indicating that the application process was open for restaurants looking to use public spaces for outdoor dining this spring, summer, and fall. The outdoor dining season will begin on April 1, the announcement said, except in the North End, where the program was “currently undergoing a community review ... as special considerations are needed due to the density of restaurants in the neighborhood.”
In summer 2020, the neighborhood’s restaurants were called before the city’s licensing board for a reprimand regarding a lack of adherence to outdoor dining rules; North End residents had lodged various complaints about the lack of social distancing, the noise, and tobacco smoke coming from the patios. Space was an issue as well, with patios and waiting diners spilling into the neighborhood’s narrow, mostly one-way streets, snarling traffic.
As a result, for the 2021 season, North End restaurants had to start their outdoor dining season a little later than everyone else and end it a month early. Now, for the 2022 season, the neighborhood is facing an even tighter schedule and extra fees that the rest of the city’s neighborhoods are not: North End restaurants must pay a $7,500 application fee for 2022 outdoor dining, and their season will only last from May 1 through September 5 or 30 (“depending on compliance”). Restaurants in other neighborhoods can serve diners outdoors from April 1 through sometime in December (the exact date has not yet been determined.) The fee is in addition to the $458 a month each restaurant much pay for each parking spot that their outdoor dining area takes up, with most restaurants using at least two spaces.
The fees will reportedly go toward offsetting issues in the neighborhood such as trash displacement, rodent control, and traffic jams.
A number of North End restaurant owners reportedly met with an attorney this week to discuss the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the city. Meanwhile, restaurants from the neighborhood have been sharing an open letter to social media, which reads in part:
‘We the People’, of the ‘North End Restaurant Community’, are shocked and dismayed by the harsh requirements, exorbitant fees, and obvious discrimination being imposed on us by Mayor Michelle Wu and the City of Boston ... The North End of Boston is one of the oldest, most historic, and most popular and loved areas in the entire City. People come from across the country and the globe to visit and experience the rich culture and history ... Therefore, having outdoor dining adds to cultural experience of the many tourists who will visit Boston.
The letter, which restaurant owners also sent directly to Wu’s office, goes on to note that the expected North End tourists will “undoubtedly enrich the economy” of businesses in other parts of Boston, but the North End’s “reward” for that is the outdoor dining fee. “Why just us?” asks the letter, which closes by requesting the removal of the fee and the extension of the schedule to September 30, “without restrictions such as ‘good behavior.’”
Wu has defended the fee, citing a need to treat the neighborhood differently due to its density and residents’ quality of life.