With the coronavirus seemingly here to stay for the next several months at least, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Thursday shed a little more light on how he imagines the city could help restaurants by creating more outdoor dining space.
Walsh in the past few weeks has hinted at a street makeover in the city that could include re-purposing space for al fresco dining, which may help cut back on the spread of the coronavirus, make customers feel more safe, and help businesses that likely face limits on indoor dining.
Walsh on Thursday said Boston’s licensing board has lifted some restrictions and is streamlining existing processes. The board has passed an emergency amendment that would make it easier for restaurants to use outdoor space and lifted the citywide requirement of “alcohol with food only” on outside spaces. City officials are also waiving fees for approved use of outdoor space on a temporary basis.
“We want to help restaurants recover and create safe distance options for everyone,” Walsh said. “We want to be ready.”
Walsh said the city has also issued an online questionnaire “that serves as an initial intake for applications,” which has received responses from 147 different restaurants, ranging from neighborhood coffee shops to downtown restaurants.
“There is an interest in every neighborhood,” he said.
Authorities said that extensions into the public way, like a sidewalk or street, require evaluation by multiple departments to make sure that such a move does not come at the expense of public safety.
The goal, according to Walsh’s office, is to cut down on red tape and allow city officials to process and approve temporary extensions without a litany of hearings, fees, and applications.
“We’re making it easier for people to apply for these licenses,” Walsh said.
Walsh then gave an example of a scenario where the city could help a local business.
“A restaurant on Dorchester Avenue wants to have outdoor dining — they don’t have the ability, but they have a sidewalk in front of the building. They would apply and say we’re interested in having a patio in front of our store, on the sidewalk. We’d be working with them — remember we launched a few years ago the ‘parklets,’ where we put them in a parking space? So we could potentially give them a ‘parklet,’ where they could set up some tables, the sidewalk would stay accessible for folks, and it would allow them the opportunity to do some outdoor dining.”
“There’s other places where we might be able to close down. . . a lane in the street used for parking and turn that into a restaurant space. We’re being creative in different parts of the city. There’s not one plan that will work everywhere.”
Walsh also addressed some calls to close down Hanover Street in the North End to cars to allow the ubiquitous restaurants there to accommodate outdoor dining.
“It sounds like a great idea and in theory would be wonderful, but we have a fire station in the middle of Hanover Street,” he said. “So we have to think about how we do something like that.”
The mayor also said he would be working with the communities affected “to let them know it’s coming.”
“There’s going to be some community process here,” he said. “A lot of our restaurants are in residential neighborhoods, so there’s a house on either side of them. So we want people to know, we might have outdoor dining. . . because people have their homes next door. Newbury Street is different from Washington Street in Roslindale, or Dudley Street in Dorchester (and) Roxbury. It’s all different.”