When Boston restaurants reopen for in-house dining, business will not be as usual. Public health guidance and city rules will probably require that eateries and cafes reduce the number of patrons they serve at once and put more space between tables. Wait staff and cooks will surely wear masks and gloves — and maybe customers will too. Restaurant owners will have to rehire furloughed workers or hire new ones, and train their staff to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
These new costs will come as restaurants struggle to pay overdue rent bills and recover from months of lost business. And compounding the crowd containment that will stymie the return to boom times will be the fear factor: A recent statewide poll shows that only 42 percent of Massachusetts residents would feel comfortable eating out in the absence of a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, even if restaurants reopen for dining in. For the eateries that survive the pandemic, coming back to life will not be easy.
But the reopening also offers the opportunity to make dining out in Boston, especially in the warm summer months, better than ever. The city can ease the permitting process and remove hurdles that have long prevented restaurants from expanding outdoor seating capacity and that make it impossible to serve drinks outside without food. It’s also a unique moment, with car traffic and urban congestion way down, to experiment with turning city blocks or entire streets into outdoor dining plazas. This could give restaurants a larger footprint to accommodate social distancing and allow diners to enjoy fresh air and city vistas in the short run, and in the long run contribute to a more thriving street culture of the kind enjoyed in cities in Europe and South America — or at least when New England weather cooperates.
On Monday the city’s licensing board put out a survey for restaurants and other businesses asking for ways they can ease reopening, including by streamlining permitting processes or otherwise making it easier for them to temporarily expand outdoor dining areas. Boston’s chief of economic development, John Barros, told the Globe editorial board that the city has already been holding listening sessions with retailers and restaurants about ways it can help them reopen.
The city should do all it can to help restaurants expand their seating into street parking spaces, parking lots, and sidewalks while still maintaining enough passages and accessibility for people with disabilities. The licensing board should ease the permitting process so it’s quick, virtual, and also flexible when it comes to architectural design and other concerns that delay such approvals in normal times. And the city should change its policy of allowing alcoholic drinks to be served outdoors only in the presence of food, so that customers who want to support local businesses — or simply enjoy a drink al fresco — can do so. And it’s high time to experiment with temporary or permanent closures of blocks and streets with lots of dining establishments. Imagine, for instance, closing down blocks of Newbury Street in the evenings or narrowing Hanover Street in the North End to one lane for vehicles while claiming the rest for pedestrians and local restaurant seating.
Although the city is currently collecting ideas from the restaurant community as “temporary” pandemic recovery proposals, there are good reasons to make the shift to the outdoors one that lasts for good.
“We’re in challenging times, and we have the chance to experience public space in new and different ways that might enable us to appreciate them more,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, in an interview with the Globe editorial board. It’s critical, she added, that the state and city put out guidance for restaurants as soon as possible so that they can start planning seating plans and other measures for their reopening.
Cities around the world are experimenting with better ways to use their streets, from shutting down miles of roads to cars and opening new bike lanes, in Milan, to inviting stores and cafes to turn parking spaces into “parklets” with expanded amenities, in San Francisco. The pandemic has created the need to rethink how urban centers can bounce back, but also the potential to revitalize them in ways previously not imagined. Boston has the chance to have its own renaissance, and one good way to start is to make it easier for restaurants to pour out into the sidewalks and streets.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.