Bill Neville

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville

If restrictions end, program would allow restaurants to continue use of space

(Jan. 8, 2021) Regardless of what covid-19-related occupancy restrictions for restaurants might do in the months ahead, Ocean City government has extended its temporary outdoor seating permit program through the end of the year.

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville presented a renewal request for the outdoor dining permit program during the mayor and City Council meeting on Monday.

“This item is a success story from last year,” he said.

Last May, the council approved issuing temporary permits to allow restaurants restricted by covid safety protocols issued by Gov. Larry Hogan the ability to set up table service outdoors.

Neville said the stopgap measure was well received by the business community and consumers with few problems noted last summer.

In total, 66 resort restaurants were approved for temporary outdoor table service. The permit program approved last year expired on Dec. 31.

Neville said the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association was among the entities requesting the outdoor dining permit program be extended into 2021.

“We’ve had a number of requests from HMRA and individual businesses,” he said. “There’s a real interest in trying to make this happen again this next year.”

Mayor Rick Meehan supported the outdoor dining permit process for the sake of businesses, as well as residents and visitors.

“Our businesses were creative,” he said. “They followed all the guidelines and they led by example.”

Meehan asked if the outdoor dining program would continue when covid restrictions are lifted to allow restaurants and bars to return to maximum indoor occupancy.

Neville said the permit program language approved last year established the process for either six months or until all indoor dining restrictions are lifted.

“Our recommendation at staff level would be to retain that language so council has the option, when and if that happens, to decide if the program should continue all year,” he said.

Meehan said allowing additional outdoor occupancy for restaurants in the aftermath of coronavirus would be ideal in most cases, but warned that parking issues or conflicts with adjacent properties need to be avoided.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that those restrictions will be removed,” he said.

Councilman John Gehrig said he would back extending the permit program through the end of 2021 even if covid restrictions are lifted.

“Letting those businesses recover from what happened in 2020 and make the decision themselves what’s best for their business,” he said.

Neville said after conferring with the Worcester County Health Department, the Board of License Commissioners and the Worcester Fire Marshal’s Office the consensus was the permitting process went smoothly with few issues.

“The only exception was the Fire Marshal’s Office would like us to [require] that information be provided on the location and specifications of any proposed tent or patio-heating appliances,” he said. “We’ve had some proposals for propane heaters, but we’ve also seen some that have tried to connect to the gas lines in the building.”

Neville suggested any temporary measures related to heating outdoor spaces could be issued under the outdoor dining program but permanently extending gas lines outside a structure would require a building permit application.

Councilman Mark Paddack, in a motion for approval, said approval for temporary exterior heating could be handled under the permit program.

“If they want to do something permanent, the businesses would go through the regular process,” he said.

Neville said the program renewal would allow dining establishments already approved for outdoor tables to continue in the same manner this year.

“Anybody that was approved last year gets to roll their approval over without having to re-file,” he said.

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