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City officials to do random inspections in North End after numerous complaints about outdoor dining

The Licensing Board made the announcement during a virtual meeting Wednesday.

People gather at cafe tables placed in the closed parking lane on Hanover Street.
People gather at cafe tables placed in the closed parking lane on Hanover Street.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Following dozens of complaints about safety violations, the city will begin random inspections of new al fresco dining spaces set up in the North End to accommodate the return of customers after months of coronavirus closures.

The city’s Licensing Board issued the warning in an emergency online meeting Wednesday. Attendance was mandatory for North End restaurant owners and their representatives; at one point, more than 200 people were in the hearing, held on Zoom.

Kathleen Joyce, chairwoman of the Licensing Board, noted that the industry has been particularly hard-hit by the effects of COVID-19, and she commended the restaurateurs’ efforts to reopen under difficult circumstances.

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But she said the city would not tolerate any further violations of the rules for the new outdoor dining initiative the city announced earlier this month.

“Your right to occupy a city space for outdoor dining is a privilege,” Joyce said. “With that privilege comes responsibility, and the responsibility includes following our rules and regulations — and not just some of them.”

As of Wednesday, at least 50 complaints had been received through BOS:311 about establishments failing to follow the rules, officials said. Board members said they’ve also fielded complaints by both phone and e-mail.

The complaints have mostly centered on people bringing pets to the outdoor spaces, smoking, loud music, restaurants extending beyond their allotted space, and a general lack of social distancing.

Disgruntled neighbors have also complained that the neighborhood has become overcrowded; a few expressed aggravation with the lack of parking, after restaurant owners took over spaces in front of their businesses.

To ensure restaurants are in full compliance with public health and safety guidelines, Joyce said, the board’s license premise unit and the Inspectional Services Department will start doing random inspections in the North End in the coming days.

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If a restaurant is found to be in violation of the rules, including exceeding its boundaries or not keeping seats six feet apart — Joyce said they will be measuring — guests will be asked to leave immediately and approval for the outdoor space will be revoked on the spot.

“We are not waiting for people to pay their bills,” said Joyce. “They will be asked to leave right away.”

Any violations will also lead to an indoor inspection, putting an establishment’s operations at risk. Joyce said the meeting Wednesday served as an official warning.

“We need every single one of you to follow the rules,” she said. “We need everyone’s cooperation.”

On June 10, as the state eased into the first part of Phase 2 of reopening the economy, Mayor Martin J. Walsh unveiled plans to let restaurants place tables and chairs on sidewalks and in the street to help them bounce back from the negative financial impacts of the coronavirus. The state has since moved to part two of Phase 2, which allows for indoor dining with restrictions.

At the time of Walsh’s announcement, roughly 500 requests for temporary outdoor extensions were submitted, officials said, with more than 200 restaurants immediately receiving full or conditional approval to move ahead.

In the North End, 65 restaurants applied for and received approval. Five others have received conditional approval, and several requests remain under review. City officials said “special considerations” had to be given to the neighborhood due to the density of restaurants there.

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On Monday, in response to the litany of complaints, the Licensing Board posted a notice online urging all North End establishments with either a Common Victualler License, or a Common Victualler License with Alcoholic Beverages, to attend Wednesday’s emergency hearing.

The board said a failure to show up could result in a restaurant losing its outdoor dining privileges, as well as other “additional disciplinary action.”

Lesley Delaney Hawkins, executive secretary and general counsel for the board, told the Zoom hearing participants Wednesday that the city has also received a ”tremendous” amount of positive feedback about the temporary outdoor dining program.

“We understand that the vast majority of licensees both in the North End and throughout the city are good operators and are simply trying to do the right thing and get their businesses back up and operating,” she said.

But, Delaney Hawkins added, “we will not look the other way” if people continue to bend the rules.

“Some of these violations have been egregious, and we do not take these things lightly,” she said.

Joyce, the board’s chairwoman, said the city doesn’t want to see the new program end because of all the complaints coming in.

“We want to help you,” she said. “We are committed to working with you to address all of the challenges so we can operate in a safe way.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss