(May 22, 2020) The Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously to ask the Worcester County Health Department to draft a set of guidelines for outdoor restaurants at their emergency meeting last Thursday.
As it stands, no restaurants are allowed to provide indoor or outdoor seating.
The commissioners will send a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan to request that he give counties local control over outdoor dining and to give him their plan on how Worcester would carry that out.
County Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic and administration staff clarified that the mandate states that restaurants can only serve carryout and delivery. The food must be taken off premises.
Mitrecic warned that any restaurant allowing patrons to consume food on a picnic table or bench on site is illegal.
“The liquor board is taking a stance that they, in fact, were appointed by the governor, and that they are there to enforce the governor’s rules,” Mitrecic said. “Anyone who opens and does on— premise services can … lose their liquor license.”
He said that the health department would have to enforce the mandate for restaurants that don’t have liquor licenses.
Although he encouraged restaurants to follow the directives, Mitrecic said it’s unfair to not allow outdoor seating.
“You can take your bucket of Thrasher’s French fries and sit on a bench, then the next guy comes and sits on the bench, nobody wipes it off, whereas a place like the ice cream place [Island Creamery], they can have somebody wiping the tables and chairs off,” Mitrecic said.
As for requesting outdoor seating, he emphasized that the county needed to create a plan.
“We need to send answers to the questions of how we’re going to do this and solutions to how we’re going to accomplish this so that we’re not just asking for this, we’re showing him [Hogan] how we’re going to make this happen,” Mitrecic said.
Kelly Shannahan, assistant administrative officer, mentioned that various county departments were working to help restaurants without outdoor seating apply for that on a temporary basis through a streamlined process.
Ed Tudor, director of review and permitting, said that the free, streamlined process would not require a change in zoning code – the departments would work within the existing law.
“If we can find a way that they can put it, say in their parking lot or some other open space areas without interfering with setbacks type things or travel ways, things that the fire marshal may be worried about, if we can find ways to make it work, we want to make it work,” Tudor said.
Bob Mitchell, director of environmental programs, said this was especially important since if Hogan allowed outdoor restaurants to serve, only those that already have outdoor seating would be in the game.
County Commissioner Chip Bertino said that a streamlined process reminds him of walking through Jell-O.
“A week could make a difference with these small businesses,” Bertino said. “I hope that when you’re talking about streamlining, you’re talking about a very quick turnaround time of a day.”
Mitchell replied that the process would be more like a check list and the department would address specific cases, rather than a bunch of permit applications.
“We have to ensure that there is adequate parking and it doesn’t infringe upon other businesses,” Tudor said. “Each case is going to have to be an independent evaluation.”
As of Wednesday, the Worcester County Health Department had not commented on the status of the draft.