As restaurants and retailers are able to reopen on May 20, 2020, for outdoor dining only, the Town of West Hartford is working on multiple strategies to make it possible for establishments to maximize their capacity through the use of public spaces.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford has had a vibrant outdoor dining scene for many years – but those outdoor seats have served as temperate weather supplements to the many more thousands of indoor seats that, prior to COVID-19, were filled with patrons enjoying the town’s diverse restaurants.
Since March 16, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while takeout and delivery have been able to continue, on-premise dining has been prohibited in all of those eating establishments by executive order of Gov. Ned Lamont. If the restrictions ease on May 20, and restaurants decide to reopen for on-premise dining, outdoor seating will be the only option.
Based on data released Tuesday, the metrics are continuing to show positive results, to move in the direction of critical public health benchmarks that need to be met to allow certain portions of the economy to reopen May 20 through “baby steps.”
“We’re working on an exciting plan and looking forward to partnering with our restaurants – and other retailers – so they can maximize the opportunities for their businesses,” Town Manager Matt Hart told We-Ha.com on Tuesday.
Hart said the town has established an interdisciplinary working group that includes staff from Community Development, Engineering, Public Works, and the police and fire departments to determine how to restaurants can expand their existing outdoor dining capacity or add outdoor seating where none currently exists.
Two executive orders are expected to come from the governor, Hart said, one expanding regulations and fast-tracking the process so that restaurants can use their indoor food and alcohol permits outdoors, and a second to allow for revocation of permits if the restaurants don’t comply with the state’s other guidelines.
The executive orders will pre-empt the town’s standard processes for approval of outdoor dining. For example, Hart said, detailed site plans will not be required to be presented to West Hartford’s Town Plan and Zoning Commission or Town Council before implementing outdoor dining.
Executive Order 7MM was issued Tuesday night, and as expected expedites approval and permitting for expanded outdoor dining.
The order also specifically allows restaurants and other businesses that already have liquor permits to serve alcohol with food to do so outside without the need to apply for a separate permit.
In addition, the order provides fast-tracking of approval for retail businesses to operate on sidewalks and other outdoor areas such as municipal public spaces, and lifts minimum parking restriction for outdoor activities.
West Hartford’s working group is finalizing plans to allow restaurants that abut public rights of way – like sidewalks or even streets and town-owned parking lots – to make use of parts of those areas to increase their outdoor dining space, Hart said.
If the restaurants are interested, the town will allow for expansion of the footprint to outdoor areas, or for the expansion of current outdoor dining to allow for more seating since tables will have to be spaced further apart under state guidelines.
“We will be converting some number of on-street parking spaces to outdoor dining areas,” Hart said, in order to allow restaurant to have more tables and seats. Although there had been some discussion of having communal outdoor dining areas in areas of West Hartford – something similar to an outdoor food court – Hart said it doesn’t appear that will be permitted under the state’s current guidelines due to strict protocols regarding issues such as physical distancing and cleanliness for which individual restaurants are responsible.
Establishments may not set up outdoor bars, but alcohol may be served to those who are dining, the order states.
While there has been some chatter on social media regarding the possible closing of LaSalle Road to vehicles to accommodate outdoor dining and other activities, Hart said, “it would be a challenge to close LaSalle completely.” The reasons cited include: negative impact on other retailers as well as restaurants providing takeout, accessibility for other non-retail businesses, access for emergency vehicles, and the need to set up and take down the spaces on a constant basis.
“We want to be able to set up for the season,” Hart said. Not only will there be seating, but the town, at its expense, will erect barriers to protect diners from vehicular traffic.
In addition to LaSalle Road, some parking areas on Farmington Avenue in the Center and on the portion of South Main Street closest to Farmington Avenue, will also be able to be turned into outdoor dining, Hart said.
In Blue Back Square, however, Hart said the town is seriously looking at closing off Isham Road between Memorial Road and New Street to vehicle traffic to accommodate outdoor restaurant and retail operations.
Temporarily making some roadways one-way will also be considered, Hart said.
Restaurants that are purely on private property, such as those in Corbin’s Corner or Bishops Corner, will be permitted by the town to obtain permits for outdoor dining as long as the property owners give their permission.
Rockledge Grille, which is located completely on town-owned property, would also be able to seek approval to expand its outdoor dining footprint if desired, Hart said.
Hart unveiled his plans to the Town Council Tuesday during the virtual meeting, and in response to a question confirmed that the outdoor dining plan will apply to all sections of town, including Elmwood and Park Road.
The governor’s executive order indicates that outdoor dining and outdoor display of goods must end by 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday but can be extended until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Live entertainment is not permitted under the order, unless approved independently by the town.
Hart said town staff “will be distributing our concept to the restaurants and the rest of the businesses for their feedback.”
Later this week, town staff will be providing businesses with guidance on how to apply for permits, which according to the executive order will need to be approved or denied by the local zoning official within 10 days. Appeals of denials will need to be made within seven days of receipts of the detail, the order states.
Prior to reopening, they will also need to complete the self-certification process on the state Department of Economic and Community Development website and receive a “Reopen CT badge.”
“Next week we want to be able to roll out a concept for creative uses of rights of way,” Hart said.
Use of tents or other canopies, or propane heaters, would be the responsibility of the restaurateurs and would necessitate approval by the fire marshal.
For the near term, West Hartford will not be charging for on-street parking in the Center or Blue Back Square. “We will have to change that at some point in the future,” Hart said, as well as if employees start using the available spaces and don’t allow enough parking for patrons.
“We appreciate what the business community is going through right now,” said Hart. “We want to come up with something that works for them.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mayor Shari Cantor said if there is any time for prioritization of innovation, service, and health, it’s now. “We need to think out of the box and allow our creativities to happen,” she said.
The plans Hart explained have not been created in a silo, Cantor said, and urged businesses to continue to provide input.
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