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County Unveils Way For Eateries to Keep Their Outdoor Seating, For Now

(Updated 4:05 p.m.) Arlington restaurants can now apply to increase the number of diners they are permitted to serve indoors and outdoors, according to Arlington Economic Development.

The county is allowing restaurants to temporarily up their maximum capacity so that the eateries can keep using — and possibly expand — their pandemic-era temporary outdoor seating areas (TOSAs), even as indoor capacity restrictions have lifted, the AED newsletter to local businesses said.

Kate Bates, President and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, praised the decision.

“The Chamber of Commerce applauds the county for moving forward to extend TOSAs in way that works for restaurants and the community,”  Bates said. “We shared this with our member restaurants, and they are very pleased. Some made big investment in TOSA areas and they’re able to use that to draw in more customers.”

When restaurants prepared to reopen last summer, they needed outdoor dining to make up for the space they lost inside to social distancing requirements. Additionally, the format had a lower risk of transmission than indoor dining.

So in May 2o2o, the Arlington County Board approved a process through which restaurants could obtain a permit to set up these seating areas, provided that they met fire and safety codes. In December, the board granted restaurant and bar owners the ability to set up in common areas, such as plazas.

One year later, capacity restrictions governing Virginia restaurants have lifted. In Arlington, that means restaurants still using their TOSAs could technically exceed their permitted occupancy maximums. So the county is allowing restaurants to request a temporary certificate of occupancy (TCO) for their TOSAs, which will allow them to operate these seating areas while also operating at full capacity indoors.

The TCOs will expire with the TOSAs, which will remain in operation at least through 2021. The seating areas are permitted by the county’s Continuity of Government Ordinance, which will run for six months beyond the declared end of the pandemic.

“We really can’t emphasize enough that, even though TOSAs were helpful, restaurants still faced incredible losses and decimation,” Bates said. “In 2021, restaurants still need support from the losses over the last 16 months.”

But restaurant owners can’t run out and set up more outdoor seating just yet. Inspections, permits and amendments will be required to make these changes, according to AED.

Those interested in getting a temporary occupancy permit should schedule a free code consultation with the county, the economic development agency said.

“To ensure the safety of all restaurant staff and patrons, the Virginia Building and Fire Prevention Code regulates capacity limitations,” said AED. “For this reason, the ability to obtain a TCO for a TOSA will depend on a restaurant’s individual circumstances and existing indoor and/or outdoor capacity.”

Those interested in expanding their TOSAs must also submit an amendment to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which regulates liquor sales in these seating areas, the newsletter said. TOSAs approved for liquor sales will be able to serve drinks at least for through the end of 2021.

But the processes put in place last year did not work for all restaurants. The owner of Summers Restaurant said delays in TOSA permitting are one reason why the establishment closed last year.

And Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher said application troubles and fire codes made it impossible to seat his Arlington guests outside and keep them warm — without breaking the law.

Going forward, Bates said the Chamber wants to see the county “make it work” for restaurants facing extra hurdles, rather than coming up reasons for barring them from participating. The process needs to be a streamlined “not just on paper but in practice,” she said.

Eventually, the Chamber would like to see these outdoor seating areas become permanent parts of local codes, she said.

“This is community-building,” Bates said. “Outdoor dining makes Arlington vibrant and promotes other community interactions.”

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