The day – Diners moved outdoors during the pandemic and loved it
It’s been nearly two years since Norwich officials swung into action by blocking city center parking spaces with concrete barriers and providing picnic tables, so establishments like La Stella Pizzeria and Billy Wilson’s Aging Still can have al fresco dining.
With diners wary of indoor spaces amid the coronavirus pandemic, efforts were made across the region to ensure that restaurants that wished could open for outdoor dining when permitted on May 20, 2020.
“The first year, it was absolutely necessary for us to survive,” said Justin Burrows, owner of La Stella. While it could initially seat around 40 people outside, the city removed the barricades and tables before this winter, and Burrows said he “survived just fine without the tables outside” the last summer. There are only two tables of two people left in front of the entrance.
But many other restaurants in Norwich and across the state have further expanded outdoor dining in car parks, on pavements or where there was street parking, and they want to continue indefinitely.
Some people are still hesitant to eat indoors due to COVID-19, but other diners just like having the option. The streetside restaurant brings a European flair to the main streets of Connecticut.
Governor Ned Lamont on Wednesday signed legislation extending relaxed outdoor dining rules through April 30 next year. The bill won bipartisan support, passing 34-0 in the Senate and 121-21 in the House.
In May 2020, Lamont signed an executive order creating an expedited process for restaurants to gain municipal approval for outdoor dining expansion. Last March, the House and Senate unanimously passed legislation codifying the order. The law stated that restaurateurs would not have to submit plans from a licensed engineer or architect, a parking plan or certain other plans when applying for an outdoor dining expansion.
“These relaxed rules could be the start of a new Connecticut tradition that increases activity in our cities,” Lamont said in a press release at the time. “One of the positive results of this unfortunate pandemic is that we have been thinking about new and creative ways to offer outdoor activities, including in restaurants.
But the law only went into effect until March 31, 2022, hence the legislature’s vote last month. Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, chairman of the Planning and Development Committee, said if this bill did not pass it would have created a potential backlog in zoning offices and hardship for companies.
Vahey noted that this year’s bill made a few minor additions to address the concerns of people with disabilities: requiring pathways to be maintained in accordance with physical accessibility guidelines and the state Building Code.
Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven, a senior member of the planning and development committee, said that while he is concerned about the loss of local control and the loss of public participation, he believes that the benefits outweigh the costs. He is confident that local zoning enforcement officers will administer zoning codes fairly to ensure that residents’ interests of public safety and privacy are balanced with the need to support businesses that have struggled for the pandemic.
“It could very well have saved my business”
On Broadway in Norwich, Billy Wilson’s Aging Still added tent-covered picnic tables to five parking spaces, adjoined by the pavement on one side and concrete barriers separating the seats from traffic on the other.
“Quite honestly, it could very well have saved my business,” said owner Paul Siefert. He called the extension to April 2023 “phenomenal”.
“When you have a nice day, I’ll have 20, 30 people outside,” he said. “And there are still people who are much more comfortable outdoors than indoors.”
Mayor Peter Nystrom said the city is looking at ways to make outdoor dining more permanent, such as widening the width of the sidewalk in the Billy Wilson area and building a patio on the corner lot that the city has. owns in Bath Street.
Nystrom said people had to make adjustments at first to navigate, but now everyone is generally looking forward to outdoor dining.
Kevin Brown, president and chief executive of the Norwich Community Development Corporation, thinks an extension of more than 13 months would be even better, saying that while the expansion of outdoor dining has helped restaurants in their response to the pandemic, it also “opened all of our eyes to the possibilities.”
“I think the pandemic has, in its own way, turned us into something that we should have considered and done anyway,” he said.
On Pearl Street in Mystic, The Harp and Hound has tables set up in the road between the concrete barriers and the sidewalk. Owner Leo Roche said he was “very happy with the extension, for another 13 months. A lot of people are still uncomfortable going inside, and now we’ve had a little up with COVID. It’s just great to have that opportunity to dine al fresco.”
He said it was easy to work with the City of Groton on this, he only had to submit an exterior plan but he didn’t have to pay anything.
Harp and Hound and Illiano’s Grill at Niantic will continue to offer outdoor seating this year, though they’re not quite ready for the season just yet.
Illiano’s transformed its front parking lot abutting Route 161 by adding grass, picnic tables and a TV, which it continued last summer as well. Manager Erin O’Brien said many people have told her how much they love outdoor dining.
In Waterford, Filomena owner Mike Buscetto said the governor had visited his establishment twice during the pandemic, which had set up tables in the car park and had music outdoors.
The Lyme Tavern Sports Bar and Restaurant added about 30 parking spaces in 2020, owner Steve Carpenteri said. But Lyme Tavern could also seat around 48 people in its pre-existing patio space, and then indoor dining was permitted, so the establishment discontinued expanded outdoor dining once the season ended.
Look long term
While expanded outdoor dining was a temporary fix for some restaurants in 2020, Connecticut Restaurant Association executive director Scott Dolch said he’s seen an expansion of outdoor dining overall in 2021.
Dolch said the just-passed bill “is so important right now” because restaurants are still dealing with the secondary impacts of COVID-19: labor shortages, inflation, chain issues. supply.
“I would love to sit here and tell you this pandemic is over, but we don’t know that. Nobody knows that,” Dolch said. He added that the extension “aims to help these restaurants recover, and we don’t know how long the recovery will last.”
But he also doesn’t want to return to the legislature every year for an extension. He wants there to be allocations that are long-term and not unique to the pandemic.
He said he wanted to work with municipalities for a long-term solution, and he’s had calls with disability rights advocates concerned about driveways and parking spaces for people with disabilities.
The first summer of the pandemic, outdoor dining may have been hastily and in desperation to stay in business. But Dolch said he focused more last year on things like lighting, carpeting and flowers, “because they don’t want it to just be a table on a sidewalk. Your experience in a restaurant is as much the food as the service as the ambiance.”
Her hope for the third year is that cities do more to highlight outdoor dining; as examples, he pointed to West Hartford’s barricades painted by local artists and Chester’s lighting systems.
Dan Walsh, president of the nonprofit Niantic Main Street which promotes downtown revitalization in the East Lyme community, said part of his discussions with the Yale Urban Design Workshop focused on how to set up outdoor dining on a more permanent basis.
“I think people still like to eat out,” Walsh said. “I think if we continue like this it would be great.”