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County returns to pre-pandemic process for outdoor tents, leaving some restaurants frustrated

The outdoor temporary tents at SER in Ballston in 2021 (image via Google Maps)

Arlington is returning to the pre-pandemic process for restaurants to apply for outdoor tents, a move that has left at least a couple of local restaurants unhappy.

For the last two years, the county has made an effort to streamline the application process for outdoor tents as part of helping restaurants set up temporary outdoor seating areas, or TOSAs.

Back in December, however, the process for applying for outdoor tents was separated from the TOSA process, which was recently extended to February 2023. Arlington, meanwhile, is letting its Covid state of emergency expire on Aug. 15.

“The application process is returning to the pre-pandemic process that has always been in place. The process for tents was streamlined to help businesses during the pandemic,” County spokesperson Jessica Baxter tells ARLnow. “As they were before the pandemic, applications for tents must be submitted via the temporary structure/tent here. The guidelines for tents remain the same and have not changed.”

Those guidelines are enforced by the Arlington County Fire Department and fire marshall. Among the rules: a tent cannot be larger than 900 square feet and there needs to be a separate permit and inspections for gas heaters.

There is also a limitation on how long an outdoor temporary tent can be up: only six months (180 days) out of the year. What’s more, a business can’t apply for another permit to put up another tent until a six-month period has lapsed since the last tent was taken down.

These rules exist, said Baxter, because of the statewide fire code and there’s not much the county can do.

“The six-month temporary tent allowance is part of the Virginia Statewide Fire Code, which the County is required to follow. If an applicant wishes to make the tent more permanent, they can apply for a building permit and enter that process,” she wrote. “At this time, no tents should be up, with the exception of restaurants that received a building permit and single, pop-up tents smaller than 120 square feet.”

Of course, the fire code seems to be in conflict with the desire of many to dine outdoors, while being protected from the elements. With the state health department still reporting more than 100 Covid infections per day in Arlington, eating outside is widely viewed as a less risky alternative to indoor dining.

Baxter said the county is “actively working to create longer-term solutions that offer permanent outdoor dining options,” but temporary outdoor tents are not part of that effort because of the restrictions laid out in the fire code.

With most of the outdoor tents coming down in December, many businesses could have started reapplying for outdoor tents for the upcoming fall and winter season in June.

But reverting to a pre-pandemic process and guidelines has left a couple of restaurants that talked with ARLnow confused, frustrated, and at a loss on how to explain this to customers.

One is Medium Rare, the local steak restaurant with locations in Maryland, D.C., and one in Arlington’s Virginia Square neighborhood.

In the previous pandemic years, the restaurant did have an outdoor tent for diners, but Medium Rare had to take it down this past December, said owner Mark Bucher.

The outdoor temporary tents at Medium Rare in Virginia Square in 2021 (image via Google Maps)

He told ARLnow that compared to other local jurisdictions, Arlington’s TOSA process, as well as the one to apply for outdoor tents, is “complicated and cumbersome.”

Bucher also wondered what the logic was behind the directive that a restaurant a tent had to come down after six months.

“Arlington has always been so restaurant-friendly, so this goes against everything,” he said. “Why put up a tent, take it down, and pay to put it back up again?”

As the weather turns cooler again, and as Covid and other respiratory diseases ramp up, customers are going to want to sit outside in a heated tent, he said. But Bucher worries that a number of restaurants are not going to go through the process to get a temporary tent again, and diners are going to take their business to other nearby jurisdictions.

For his part, Bucher said Medium Rare in Virginia Square will not be reapplying to put up an outdoor tent.

“It’s too much brain damage for us now. With interest rates and inflation, we are focused on giving customers a valued meal,” he said. “[To reapply], it’s time, aggravation, and money. It’s not worth it, but I wish it was different.”

Medium Rare isn’t the only restaurant echoing this sentiment. SER, a tapas restaurant along N. Glebe Road in Ballston, says the temporary outdoor tents that became a prominent feature of the restaurant will not be returning.

The restaurant, too, had to take the tents down in December and was under the impression that reapplying wasn’t an option.

Manager Sergio Camdon said it’s frustrating because he has a lot of customers asking about the tents, even in the summer as protection from the sun, because they see images on Yelp and Google Maps. He has to tell them the tends are no longer there and may never come back. They are often disappointed, he said, and knows that the restaurant has lost business because of it.

Because of this, however, SER made the decision to build a permanent outdoor structure. That may be more expensive than having a temporary tent, Camden said, but it’s worth it for employees, customers, and to “not have to deal with temporary tents anymore.”

Camdon hopes construction starts soon, maybe in a month or two, but the restaurant is still awaiting permits and County Board approval.

He doesn’t know if it will be ready in time for the colder weather.

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