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Once a summertime luxury, outdoor dining may be the rule when restaurants reopen

Cafeteria Restaurant has its outside tables locked up with cables on Newbury Street.
Cafeteria Restaurant has its outside tables locked up with cables on Newbury Street.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Your next meal at a restaurant could be served in the street.

That is the future many Massachusetts town and city leaders are preparing for, searching out ways they can cordon off plazas, sidewalks, or even Main Street for restaurants to expand their dining rooms once Governor Charlie Baker allows them to begin serving customers in-person again.

The Baker administration, too, is weighing how it can make it easier for restaurants to pivot to outdoor service in the next step of the governor’s reopening plan, according to municipal officials briefed on state officials’ thinking.

How and when that step is taken, of course, is an open question. Restaurants, which have been restricted to takeout and delivery since mid-March, will be allowed to restart in-person service under phase two of Baker’s plan. But while that could be as soon as June 8, he and his aides have cautioned that an exact date will be determined by data on COVID-19′s spread.

It’s also unclear whether Baker follows his counterparts in New Hampshire and Rhode Island in restricting restaurants to outdoor service-only to start, with tables spaced apart and strict caps on capacity to help stem further infections.

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But municipal leaders, many of whom are in regular contact with state officials, say they’re prepping for that possibility, as cramped cafes and neighborhood eateries figure out how they can survive in a socially distanced world.

In Medford, Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn is examining the potential of closing streets around Medford Square, including Riverside Avenue, to allow businesses to expand dining options. Waltham Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy said in a video update she wants to explore using parking lanes on Main Street. And Boston officials have said they’re weighing how they could push parking into the travel lanes to allow restaurants to spill outward.

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“I think it would be natural that it would be first,” Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said of outdoor-only dining. As they await specifics from Baker, city officials are examining using plazas and other spaces for new dining space, and their intention is “to go bold,” she said.

“But not everyone can do outdoor dining. And indoor metrics, those indicators are a little riskier. I think they [state officials] are still trying to get there," she said. “Public health versus public wealth: This is the tug of war that exists.”

Baker this week did not directly answer a question about whether he was considering allowing only outdoor dining to start, saying Tuesday that there were “a lot of conversations going on.” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at a separate briefing that state officials have indicated “everything is on the table.”

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who is leading Baker’s reopening advisory board, suggested Wednesday that restaurants’ return could feature a mix of service.

“We want to get to phase two so that they can start to open outdoor, indoor, and offer more to their patrons,” she said in a Boston Magazine virtual event.

Revere Mayor Brian M. Arrigo, who participated in a Tuesday call with Polito and others, said she indicated state officials were “kicking around the idea of an executive order” to streamline the process allowing restaurants to have outdoor dining, and to address how “alcoholic beverages get served in establishments."

“Do we need a board of health order? Do we need a zoning change?” Arrigo said of the questions officials would have to weigh in navigating the regular thicket of bureaucratic tape. “They wanted to make sure . . . the local process would allow cities and towns to adopt some of these changes.”

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Allowing restaurants to expand outside goes far beyond plopping tables and chairs in an unused parking space. Many restaurants normally need clearance from both their local licensing authority and the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

The City of Boston, in encouraging applications for a temporary extension of outdoor space, said no fewer than five separate city agencies would be involved in the review process, from the licensing board to the Public Improvement Commission and Transportation Department.

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy that we have to overcome,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, adding that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Baker limits service to outdoors-only at first.

“Every business is unique and the physical presence of every business is unique. Not all restaurants have access to outdoor seating. Some have never even applied for it,” he said. “It’s tough to run a restaurant as it is. We don’t want to come out of this with only big chains surviving.”

Lawmakers also question whether all the complexities restaurants face could be addressed solely through an order from Baker. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Wednesday that House leaders are crafting a “legislative restaurant package” that could include waiving meals tax interest on late payments, easing outdoor dining restrictions, and expanding alcohol delivery options to include mixed drinks, among other changes.

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State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chairman, said the goal is to debate the bill in the House before June 8, meaning it could emerge next week.

“It is not clear to what extent, if at all, these changes can be achieved via executive order,” DeLeo said in a statement. “Due to the embattled state of the restaurant industry, legislation is necessary to provide some certainty to these establishments as they recover.”

And to be sure, even if many restaurants transform parking spaces into al fresco dining alcoves, there’s no guarantee that customers will come. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WGBH News poll of Massachusetts residents released earlier this month found only 42 percent of respondents said they’d feel comfortable eating out in a restaurant, though the survey did not specifically ask about outdoor dining.

Being outdoors makes it much more difficult for viral particles to accumulate in the air someone else inhales, epidemiologists say, as opposed to, say, sitting inside a small bistro without circulated air.

For restaurateurs, however, there’s both frustration and uncertainty in the pace of reopening. Erik Hynes, owner of several restaurants on the South Shore, said outdoor dining should have been allowed in the first phase of reopening.

“We have no guidance about whether we can add patios in parking lots, and if they wait too long, how are we going to order chairs and tents and all the things that we need to pull it off? And that costs money as well," said Hynes, who’s also one of the lead organizers of the MA Restaurant and Jobs Group, which represents over 600 restaurants in the state.

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“We’re wasting time and spinning our wheels," he said, "and we’re going to lose more businesses and jobs.”

Tony Maws, the chef-owner of Craigie on Main and one of the leaders of the Mass Restaurants United group, which has been advocating on behalf of independent restaurateurs, said every restaurant has different operations and logistics, so there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all plan.

But seeing images of groups crowding together over Memorial Day weekend rattled many of his colleagues, he said. “I know a lot of people were really scared by that and really put off, and thinking if people aren’t acting responsibly on their own, then do we have to help them act responsibly?”

Maws said he hopes that the state guidelines also account for the expenses that many restaurant owners will incur to put up barriers or accommodate other distancing measures.

“Nothing is certain yet, and in a way I’m OK with it," he said of state officials. "I want to make sure they’ve made the most responsible decision.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.