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County to Study Ways of Making Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas Permanent

Arlington County says it will explore ways to make it easier for restaurants to establish or expand outdoor dining after the pandemic ends, according to a county report.

During the pandemic, the Arlington County Board approved a temporary way for restaurants to circumvent the normally lengthy county process for getting an outdoor dining permit. Many restaurants debuted outdoor seating over the last year to make up for the indoor space lost to social distancing requirements and give guests a safer dining experience.

Since then, the County Board has amended the outdoor dining ordinance to expand it and mold it to changing circumstances.

In December, the Board granted restaurant and bar owners the ability to set up temporary outdoor seating areas (TOSAs) in common areas, such as plazas. When capacity restrictions were lifted this spring, the County Board gave restaurants a way to request temporary certificates of occupancy (TCOs) for their TOSAs so they could operate the seating areas while operating at full capacity indoors.

The county report said staff will be looking to see if some aspects of the program could be worked into the regular outdoor seating approval process. It did not include a timeline for this inquiry.

“Specifically, staff will be working to commence a strategic exploration of whether certain flexibilities provided as part of the TOSA program initiated in response to the COVID-19 emergency should be incorporated into established regulatory provisions for outdoor dining,” it said. “This future process will have a robust engagement element and would also include public hearings prior to the County Board’s consideration of any recommended policy or regulatory changes that might result from the study,”

All this is being considered in the background of a technical change that will give restaurateurs a little leeway in phasing out the outdoor seating when the local pandemic emergency is declared over.

When the county passed a continuity of governance emergency ordinance last spring to keep government and business operations afloat, it said any flexibility allowed by the ordinance, such as TOSAs, would expire six months after the declared end of the emergency. But in reality, the document’s section on TOSAs said they expire with the declared end of the emergency.

On Saturday, the County Board is slated to consider advertising a public hearing to amend the ordinance so it’s clear that eateries also have six months to phase out the seating.

“In addition to providing consistency with the Ordinance and continued support of Arlington’s businesses, this proposed amendment will also ensure that food establishments are not required, immediately at the end of the emergency, to make significant changes to their operations and allows time for business planning,” the county report said.

Kate Bates, President and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber supports this change but urged the county to get cracking on the study of permanent options.

“Given the time it will take for Arlington County to set the rules for permanent, expanded outdoor dining, and the further time it will take for restaurants to adapt to new rules, the Chamber encourages Arlington County to advance its work on making the TOSA program permanent,” she said. “While the 2022 outdoor dining season feels far off as the summer of 2021 winds down, restaurants will need to start making investments soon to be prepared in the spring.”

As part of the upcoming request to advertise, staff said they will do outreach to see how locals feel about TOSAs. Staff report fielding a range of comments, questions and opinions on them, from support from the business community to concern that outdoor dining makes it harder for pedestrians and cyclists to get around. The report said neighbors near TOSAs tolerate the noise associated with them provided that TOSAs would end along with the emergency.

Bates said making the provisions permanent will allow restaurants to invest in their spaces in ways that could mitigate these concerns.

“We expect that there will be some refinements to the outdoor dining rules as they are made permanent, but we encourage Arlington County not to risk the success of outdoor dining by over-regulating to ameliorate any possible complaint,” she said.

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