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Following a scramble by town officials to streamline permit processes, restaurants like the Penny Lane Pub were able to get outdoor seating installed in time for a May 20 modified re-opening. (Photo courtesy of Alex Foulkes )
On May 12, Governor Ned Lamont issued Executive Order (EO) 7MM, addressing expedited approval for outdoor dining areas. This was just eight days before restaurants would be allowed to open outside seating on May 20. For Old Saybrook town officials and restaurant owners, it was something of a scramble.
Existing outdoor seating wasn’t an issue, explained Old Saybrook Zoning Enforcement Officer Chris Costa, although she noted there were the new requirements on social distancing as well as the need for employees to adhere to new, COVID-19 related health standards, such as the wearing of masks.
The order affected mainly those restaurants that needed to create new outdoor seating or expand existing outdoor areas, she explained. It repealed some existing local zoning regulations to facilitate these efforts.
“What it means is that restaurants can expand outdoor seating,” she said. “They can go, with certain permission, over property lines” as well as establish seating areas in the road in front of their businesses. “They can violate setbacks and other rules, which zoning would regularly follow.”
While restaurant seating in parking places is ordinarily not permitted in Saybrook, the EO suspended local regulations that required businesses to offer “a minimum number of parking spaces or prohibiting outdoor activities from taking place in parking lots,” the order stated. This means that restaurants, with permission, can establish seating areas in the street in front of their establishment, as well as in parking lots.
Costa and other town officials, including Economic Development Director Susan Beckman, Chief of Police Michael A. Spera, and Building Official Tom Makowicki, reached out to businesses in advance of the order.
“We called a number of businesses—some called us—to ask, ‘What are you thinking about?’ You need a map” of the outdoor seating that’s being planned, Costa said. “Let’s try to think about this together.”
Costa put together a draft, streamlined application and sent it to all the relevant departments for feedback. In addition to town departments, the resulting application addresses the needs of the Connecticut River Area Health District. The governor’s EO requires the business to supply a “narrative” with or without illustrations, indicating what the restaurant intends to implement as well as its implications for noise, waste, odor, and the environment.
Rather than provide one large space in the application for that information, Costa guided restaurant managers through the process with a series of questions.
“What we tried to do is streamline it: one application that serves for all of us,” she said. “For example, the fire marshal and building official, depending on the size of tents, usually would require a building permit. ‘Are you putting in a tent, are you extending alcohol sales, seating in parking lots?’ the application asks. ‘Are you protecting patrons from cars? Has the restaurant installed barriers, provided egress for customers, ensured ADA compliance?’”
All ordinary fees were waived, according to Costa.
Town officials worked overtime and through the weekend of May 16 to 17 to conduct inspections and problem solve, Costa said. In some cases, barriers were required, and some restaurants that had installed barriers were required to move them or to install additional or sturdier ones.
“The main concern we had was safety, just the fear that someone would drive through a parking lot or back into tables,” she said.
Most of the barriers are constructed of concrete blocks.
Gaps between barriers should allow people to walk through without providing enough space for a car to drive through, Costa explained.
“All of a sudden you have people having dinner” in a parking lot, she said. “You’re used to backing out when you pick up your dry cleaning.
“[I]n the short amount of time that we had, I think it’s [gone] pretty smoothly,” Costa said. “Some of the business have a little bit of a punch list,” requiring her department or others to return.
All applicants have passed health inspections, she said.
A Silver Lining
Main Street’s Penny Lane Pub has created an outdoor seating area behind the restaurant, said co-owner Alex Foulkes. Before the EO was issued, Foulkes called Costa to ask if it would be possible to use that space. She said yes.
The application, he said, came “really efficiently and quickly” and “we got approved within a few days.
“We built a full-on patio in like four or five days,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work ,but it’s really a nice area. We might even use it long term. That’s the silver lining.”
While the process felt “like a scramble,” Foulkes said, “since we...closed down in March...it’s been a scramble every week. This was a scramble with a finalized deadline so it felt a little different and it felt a little more immediate. We were sort of used to redoing everything in a moment’s notice.”
We Didn’t Know What We Didn’t Know
For Little Pub, located on a relatively quiet stretch of the Boston Post Road, the idea was to create a second patio on the opposite side of the building, explained co-owner Douglas Grabe. The lateness of the EO wasn’t such a big issue, he said.
“We had the date” of May 20 for re-opening, he said. “[I]t wasn’t any surprise; it was just a matter of how you were going to roll this out in practice.”
Tables, he knew, would need to be six feet apart. Hand sanitizer would need to be available. Waitstaff would wear face masks and gloves. Questions remained only as to what regulations would be imposed.
“Chris Costa was magnificent,” Grabe said. “She reached out to us early in the process.
“When we started the process, we both understood that we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” he continued. “It was very much a collaboration and very much a partnership from the building department, the Old Saybrook Police Department, the fire marshal—really a collective effort from the town officials figuring out what we needed to do to get open.”
As Little Pub’s takeout business is going well, Grabe said, “We knew we were going to get through this.
“We opened the patio up and people came and they sat on the patio,” he continued. “The people that are coming right now are certainly the ones that are comfortable going out in this environment and we think that over time, more people will be comfortable going out.
“We’re looking forward to opening the dining room in June,” Grabe said hopefully. “Whatever the future holds for us, we’ll be ready for it.”
Doing the Best We Can
Foulkes said he is humbled by the support Penny Lane Pub gets from its employees and customers.
Getting through the pandemic has been “a struggle because we’re pretty much one of the hardest hit industries,” he said. But while “there’s a lot of negative things, obviously, I see it as a challenge...There’s the situation and there’s nothing we can do about it so let’s try to do the best we can with what we have.
“We have a great team that works for us,” he continued. “We’ve done impressive things in a short period of time.”
While business isn’t what it used to be, Foulkes added, “it’s enough to get us through.”
To raise some funds, Penny Lane Pub offered discounted gift cards and had a strong response from the community.
“We sold one [gift card] for $5,000 and multiple cards for thousands of dollars,” he said. “These are regular customers” who liked the idea of getting a deal on gift cards that they plan to use in the future while helping out a favorite restaurant.
“When that was happening, I was kind of blown away,” Foulkes said. “It’s pretty amazing. And we have people just checking in: ‘Are you guys okay? You gonna make it?’
“People are just concerned because they want to make sure their [local] establishments are going to make it through,” he said.