The patios have been packed up in Boston, and the heaters and blankets have been largely stored away. But Mayor Martin J. Walsh is already thinking about spring.
The mayor on Thursday morning announced plans to bring back the outdoor patios that were launched to help restaurants adapt to the realities of the pandemic. The 2021 Outdoor Dining Pilot Program will continue many of the practices the city initiated amid the crisis — the creation of restaurant seating in “parklets” on the street and other parcels of public property — and will offer a streamlined online application to make it easier for eateries to apply for the program next year. Applications for the permits are now open.
Walsh aims to have the program up and running by April 1, if not sooner, should warm weather come earlier in the spring. “We saw the benefits outdoor dining could have to bring vibrant streets and fun experiences for restaurant goers,” Walsh said in a press conference on Thursday, adding the program was “a lifeline for our small businesses during this challenging time.”
The Licensing Board for the city of Boston approved more than 550 requests for outdoor dining licenses with more than 415 on public property in 2020, and saw applications from every single neighborhood in Boston. All applicants who had patios this year will need to reapply.
As the program expands next year, Walsh said it will change in ways that reflect feedback from the community, including having clearer guidance and guidelines and applications available in both English and Spanish. The city is also offering free one-on-one help for restaurant owners who require support and will begin hosting virtual help sessions for restaurants who want to apply next week.
Kathleen Joyce, the Licensing Board’s chair, said the mayor was eager to change the temporary program into one that will be a permanent fixture in the city.
“It’s been widely successful and people want more,” said Joyce, adding that the mayor has been pushing to expand the program further. “He tells me, ‘I want to see it everywhere in Boston and for longer periods of time.’”
Restaurants owners said that while they were thankful that patio dining helped them survive the last several months, the reality is that many restaurants may not survive the winter to apply for 2021 permits, particularly in light of the incremental rollbacks they’ve had to implement in the past several weeks. Many had hoped that the patio program might be extended into the winter. Somerville recently announced it would allow outdoor seating through December 2021.
“Everything they’ve tried to do to help, it still costs money,” said Jamie Bissonnette, the co-owner of Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey. “People are spending $4,000 on patio heaters that arrived in October to then shut down in December.”
Jody Adams, who has been working with Bissonnette on the lobbyist group Mass Restaurants United, said the city also could have stepped in to waive liquor licensing fees this year, particularly considering that many restaurants are choosing to shut down temporarily this winter — or hibernate — and won’t be using their licenses at all.
“A number of towns have waived the liquor license fees. Boston did not,” Adams said, noting that she just paid her license fees for her restaurant Trade, which has been closed since March. “We shut down, but we still have to pay as if we’re an operating restaurant to the city. There’s no imagination there. ... How do we ensure that when we come back we’ll be able to open these businesses? It’s as though we’re expendable.”
City officials said they understand the concerns and frustrations of restaurant owners, and have been doing all that they can to ensure people can patronize them safely. But considerations about plowing and snow removal on Boston’s centuries-old streets made it difficult to extend the patios beyond December, and annual liquor license renewals are required under state law.
“You’re going from a city that had hardly any outdoor patios to one that approved 550 patios in a matter of weeks,” Joyce said. “You have to give us some more time to figure out how to do this, and do this even better than we did in 2020.”