RHODE ISLAND – House Small Business Committee Chair Carol Hagan McEntee (Dist. 33 – South Kingstown, Narragansett) has proposed legislation that would allow restaurants to continue providing al fresco dining for at least another year.
When life eventually returns to normal and emergency orders are lifted, McEntee doesn’t want to immediately do away with an important lifeline for the restaurant community. Because municipalities relaxed ordinances and zoning requirements, small businesses were able to “Take It Outside” and survive a period of incredible financial hardship.
But this lifeline didn’t come without significant efforts and investments.
“Before emergency orders are lifted, I want to see a moratorium from cities and towns from shutting down all the efforts that these businesses have made to ‘Take It Outside,’ to continue to survive,” McEntee said during the most recent Small Business Committee meeting. “I want them to be able to continue with this outdoor activity, even though the minute the executive orders are lifted, they will be in non-compliance with their zoning and planning ordinances.”
As someone who’s previously sat on a town council, McEntee knows “cities and towns don’t like to be told what to do,” but she’s also an attorney who has a practice in zoning law. She knows firsthand “how complicated it is to get a permanent permit for many of these outdoor activities.”
“I don’t want to see this stopped without giving everyone a chance to make up the losses,” she said. “They’ve been hit so drastically, and they’ve taken the brunt of this pandemic.”
In addition to allowing restaurants to make up for their losses and the amount of money they’ve invested into outdoor dining areas, McEntee also pointed out that it might be some time before everyone feels comfortable eating indoors again.
She’d even like to see these expansions become a permanent fixture, but at the very least, she wants “to see all of the businesses make up for their losses this summer, and into the fall, and possibly beyond.”
George’s of Galilee Owner Kevin Durfee knows how badly every restaurant in the state has been hurt by the pandemic.
“One of the ways many restaurants were able to survive last year was expanding outdoor dining,” Durfee said. “It was particularly important for businesses that are seasonal in nature – and also the ones that don’t have outdoor dining.”
“George’s was fortunate enough to be able to add additional outdoor seating, without the need for any zoning changes,” he continued. “But many places – a lot of them friends of mine – they didn’t have outdoor dining. They were able to put together some additional seating areas outside, with the help of municipalities, that would otherwise not be permitted.”
He believes expanded outdoor dining “should continue indefinitely, as long as public safety hasn’t been impacted.” At the very least, he said restaurants should be granted an extension to use this outdoor space.
“It’s going to take years for our industry to recover,” Durfee said.
Sarah Bratko of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association echoed his comments about the critical role outdoor dining has played over the past year. Without this lifeline, many local restaurants and bars wouldn’t be here today.
“When Gov. Raimondo asked us to ‘Take It Outside,’ we took it really seriously,” Bratko said. “We built beautiful outdoor spaces out of absolutely nothing, and these have become not only so important to the restaurant as a revenue-making area, but also to the customers, who have really responded so positively to this.”
“In an effort to really build out these outdoor facilities,” the Rhode Island Hospitality Association distributed 12,000 blankets, nearly 400 heaters and 5,000 jackets for restaurant staff.
Before the pandemic, the City of Providence had a very complicated system to allow outdoor dining, according to Bratko, but they decided to go with a simple online form to keep businesses afloat. They took issues as they came, she said, of which there were very few.
“This legislation is really simple,” Bratko said. “It only extends what municipalities have already allowed to happen.”
Restaurants will continue to operate with restrictions for the next few months, “so it only makes sense that they be given some flexibility to help them survive.”
“Before COVID, we didn’t have a great outdoor dining scene,” she said. “We definitely had restaurants with outdoor dining, but it was very limited in where it was. This really allowed restaurants that had never considered outdoor dining to expand that space.”
“People are really passionate about it, people really love it, and it’s just a simple way we can make our dining process better as we get out of COVID,” she added.
George McAuliffe of Mew’s Tavern in South Kingstown has also voiced his support for this legislation
“The pandemic drastically affected and restricted our business,” he said. “Literally, overnight, we were forced to change how we operate our business.”
The transitioning to a curbside service was incredibly difficult undertaking – especially since Mews Tavern was forced to lay off more than 90 percent of their staff. According to McAuliffe, at the onset of the pandemic, business had declined by over 80 percent.
“When outside dining did become available – although providing another set of difficult challenges to overcome – it became the lifeline that allowed our business, and many more, to survive,” McAuliffe said. “To accomplish this, we invested a substantial amount of money.”
Between renting a tent and outdoor bathroom facilities, along with tables, chairs and other expensive equipment, Mews Tavern invested more than six figures into its outdoor dining area.
Rep. Robert D. Phillips (Dist. 51 – Woonsocket, Cumberland) questioned how long it will take for Mews Tavern to recoup the money they’ve spent on outdoor dining, though McAuliffe says it’s hard to tell.
Apart from not knowing when things will go back to normal, the business still needs to make up for all the business they’ve lost from the onset of the pandemic. The struggles they’re feeling, he said, are the same for every small business in Rhode Island.
More than 40 restaurants and bars have voiced their support for this legislation, including Mishnock Barn in West Greenwich, East Greenwich Tavern in East Greenwich and the Red Parrot in Newport. The Rhode Island Small Business Coalition is also in support of this measure, according to McEntee.
The American Planning Association has expressed some concerns, but the only voices of opposition so far, according to McEntee, has been the City of Newport and the City of Pawtucket.
Representatives Gregory J. Costantino (Dist.– 44, Lincoln, Smithfield, Johnston), Justine A. Caldwell (Dist. 30 – East Greenwich, West Greenwich), Terri Cortvriend (Dist. 72 – Portsmouth, Middletown), Robert D. Phillips (Dist. 51 – Woonsocket, Cumberland), Lauren H. Carson (Dist. 75 – Newport), Liana M. Cassar (Dist. 66 – Barrington, East Providence), Joshua J. Giraldo (Dist. 56 – Central Falls), Julie A. Casimiro (Dist. 31 – North Kingstown, Exeter), and Scott A. Slater (Dist. 10 – Providence) are the cosponsors of the legislation.