Arlington, VA

With Arlington and Northern Virginia poised to begin a Phase 1 reopening on Friday, the Arlington County Board today took a first step towards allowing more business to be conducted outdoors during the pandemic.

A growing body of scientific evidence has found that coronavirus spreads primarily in confined, indoor settings. That’s why Virginia’s Phase 1 reopening only allows restaurants to reopen to “dine-in” customers outdoors, with physical distancing requirements between diners and other restrictions.

Outdoor dining space is limited, however, and restaurants that want to have sidewalk cafes in Arlington have to go through lengthy approval processes.

With many restaurants facing severe financial distress, after more than two months of only being able to offer takeout and delivery, the County Board took action Tuesday afternoon that may help.

The Board voted 4-0 to approve, on an emergency basis, a process that would allow restaurants to apply for a temporary, expanded outdoor seating area, on sidewalks or in parking lots.

The Temporary Outdoor Seating Area (TOSA) process for restaurants would allow rapid approval by county staff and does not have an application fee. With written permission in hand, restaurants can then apply for an additional, needed permit from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority that would allow beer, wine and cocktails to be served in the new outdoor dining areas.

(Virginia ABC is allowing alcohol to be served in TOSAs between 6 a.m.-11 p.m., though County Board Chair Libby Garvey expressed concern about the early hours and asked county staff whether the county can restrict hours of operation. Existing rooftop dining areas, meanwhile, will be allowed to reopen under Phase 1 guidelines without additional permits.)

TOSAs could be created in on-street parking lanes, county staff told the Board in a presentation, but a more common use for parking lanes would be as “pedestrian circulation” zone, allowing people to walk around expanded sidewalk cafes. On-street parking spaces could be blocked off via rubber barriers or bollards, county staff said, though they noted that that might shrink existing, temporary restaurant pick-up and delivery zones.

“Where appropriate, repurposing parking lanes may add flexibility,” the presentation said. “[The] review process will prioritize proposals where [the owner has] consulted with neighbors.”

Reuse of parking lanes will be subject to review by Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services and must comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Vehicle travel lanes are currently expected to remain open.

The TOSA permits will be valid until the county decides to terminate them, either all at once as the pandemic abates or individually for restaurants “flaunting” the rules, officials said during today’s special online Board meeting. Violations could also be considered a crime — a Class 1 misdemeanor — though a representative from the police department told the Board that ACPD is “trying to educate,” not arrest violators.

County staff said that a TOSA-related page on the county’s website, including an application for restaurants, is expected to go live tomorrow (Wednesday). Arlington Economic Development and the Arlington Restaurant Initiative will be holding a webinar on the Phase 1 reopening and TOSAs for businesses on Thursday, while county officials are expected to address both during Arlington’s regularly-scheduled Friday online town hall for the general public on Friday.

The TOSA web page is eventually expected to include a map of approved, temporary seating areas and a form for submitting complaints, in lieu of complaints being phoned in to the county’s Emergency Communications Center.

County staff are now working on additional guidelines for bringing more activities outdoors, including religious services, fitness classes, farmers markets, brick and mortar retail, child care, and mobile vending.

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