Portland restaurants are starting to set up more tables and chairs outside for the season, but there won’t be as many as the past two summers.
Changes to the city’s outdoor dining regulations came into effect last month, ending its more flexible permitting standards amid the pandemic and frustrating some restaurant and bar owners in the Old Port .
In May 2020, during the pandemic-induced state of emergency, the city changed its outdoor dining regulations to allow for better social distancing and help businesses retain and attract customers. Changes included easing restrictions on the use of outdoor dining parking spaces (known as parklets), reducing application fees and closing several streets to through traffic, including Dana, Milk and Wharf , as well as parts of Middle and Exchange streets.
But in September, the city passed a new set of regulations, called Open Air Portland, which went into effect in April. Some of the closed streets will remain permanently closed and business owners can still request up to two parklets. But stumbling blocks in the permitting process are causing headaches for some companies who, as a result, will have reduced outdoor seating.
“We’ll have a quarter of the outdoor seating that we did last year,” said Shaun McCarthy, owner of Fore Street Dock Fore bar, which last year held up to 100 people at the exterior, the equivalent of approximately four parklets. This year, McCarthy said, his permit will only allow outdoor space for fewer than 25 patrons.
“We are better off than three years ago when we had no outdoor seating at all,” he said. “But what is worrying is the cost. Sales tax revenue will be much lower for the state.
McCarthy said his reduction in outdoor seating this summer also means he cannot go ahead with three planned new hires. “It’s a shame. Customers, locals, tourists, they loved the terraces. It just won’t be the same atmosphere.
“We’ve been working hard to be as creative as possible and pivot quickly during COVID,” said Jessica Grondin, City Communications Director. “But I completely understand the frustration.”
Grondin said the state’s plumbing code has been a particular “pain point” for some restaurants and bars. The code, which has not been strictly enforced for the past two years to help businesses during the pandemic, requires establishments to have one toilet and one urinal for every 50 male customers and two toilets for 50 clients.
A relaxed application allowed establishments to increase their seating capacity without the need to add sanitary facilities. The code is now fully enforced, and because it is a state regulation, the city is unable to change it.
Michele Corry, co-owner of Petite Jacqueline, said her restaurant had around 20 seats on Milk Street last year. But because there aren’t enough bathrooms, the restaurant won’t be able to have tables outside this year.
“Overall it will be a disappointment for locals and tourists as they loved the outdoor dining and they felt safe. I think there’s this idea that we’re back to normal, and that’s not the case. We are still digging hole” caused by the pandemic, Corry said.
Still, some business owners said they were more inclined to just embrace the changes. “I am extremely grateful for the leniency the city has given us during the pandemic,” said Joshua Miranda, owner of Blyth & Burrows and Via Vecchia, both located in the Old Port. On Friday morning, workers were assembling a patio outside Blyth & Burrows on Exchange Street, where Miranda said he would have 16 seats this season, up from 20 seats last year.
“I think it adds a lot to the landscape of the city,” Miranda said of the seating outside restaurants and bars. But he noted that he saw the changes coming and no one should be entirely surprised that the city enacted the Open Air Portland regulations as officials announced.
Central Provisions on Fore Street recently pulled the five-figure deck it built and used for outdoor seating last season, as the restaurant failed to gain approval for this season. Its owners declined to answer questions about how the change would affect their restaurant.
Yet not everyone in the Old Port is sorry to see the new regulations enacted. “I think it will be a better situation for traffic and parking,” said Joe Redman, owner of Portland’s Fore Street Joseph’s men’s clothing store, across Dana Street from Central Provisions. “I guess the restaurants will be fine.”
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