Ocean City Pushing For Outdoor Dining For Holiday Weekend

Ocean City Pushing For Outdoor Dining For Holiday Weekend
The bayfront deck at Fager's Island in Ocean City is pictured adjusted to reflect physical distancing guidelines. Photo courtesy of Fager's Island's Facebook page

OCEAN CITY — It remains uncertain if Gov. Larry Hogan will relax restrictions in place and allow outdoor dining on a limited basis with Memorial Day weekend quickly approaching, but local and state elected officials and business leaders continue to put on a full-court press.

Last Friday, phase one of the governor’s Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery was implemented including the opening of certain retail businesses, personal services businesses and religious gatherings as long as the same strict social distancing, masking, sanitation and other capacity guidelines were adhered to. Not included in phase one of Hogan’s recovery plan was an allowance for some outdoor seating with strict capacity limitations and the same distancing restrictions and hygiene standards in place. At his press conference last Wednesday, there was not one mention of restaurants in Hogan’s remarks.

As a result, with hotels, the beaches and Boardwalk open on the first real decent weather weekend of the spring, many of Ocean City’s restaurants continued operating in their carryout-only models for food and alcohol with mixed results.

This week with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend, the local area’s state representatives including Senator Mary Beth Carozza and Delegate Wayne Hartman, the Worcester County Commissioners, the Ocean City Mayor and Council, the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) and the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, among others, displayed a unit front urging Hogan to allow outdoor seating on a limited basis with restrictions in place.

As of Wednesday morning, Hogan hadn’t announced any decision on the outdoor dining issue, nor had he tipped his hat on the direction he was leaning, although he is expected to hold his weekly press conference soon.

The push this week to allow restaurants to open outdoor seating areas on a limited basis included a letter to Hogan from Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan. The mayor’s letter requests the reopening of restaurants and bars with outdoor seating on a limited basis with strict adherence to the National Restaurant Association’s COVID-19 reopening guidance effective Friday, May 22.

In his letter to Hogan, Meehan said allowing restaurants and bars to open limited outdoor seating areas with strict adherence to the aforementioned guidelines could and likely would create a safer environment for guests than the current situation.

“The town of Ocean City is cognizant of the “stop signs” outlined by the Roadmap to Recovery and in no way wants to create a situation which would slow or even reverse the progress that has been made thus far,” the letter reads. “This past weekend, our local restaurants did their best to keep up with demand by providing carryout service, but this became a challenge. With crowds expected to be even larger this coming weekend, I believe our restaurants would be better capable or providing safe service and controlling crowds if limited outdoor seating was permitted. Without the ability to move forward as requested, I fear the town of Ocean City will be placed in an untenable situation and unnecessary health and safety risks will arise.”

The mayor’s letter requests the state allow restaurants and bars, including those located in hotels to reopen for table service at “outdoor table seating only.” It would also require the establishments to maintain the current permitted practices to offer carryout and delivery of food or alcohol.

The request also includes a provision that would require all employees to complete a health screening prior to their shift. It remains uncertain just what that might entail although it would almost certainly include the taking of temperatures for employees. It would also require that hand sanitizer be available upon entry and exit for all guests and to make hand-washing facilities accessible. The mayor’s request would require all employees to wear face coverings.

In terms of utilizing outdoor space, the request would require physical distancing of at least six feet between outdoor seating tables. It would limit the number of customers at each outdoor seating table during the initial reopening phase to six people and would prohibit customers from standing in the outdoor seating areas and require that all customers be assigned to a table.

Again, if approved, the request would require those waiting to be seated to maintain appropriate physical distancing and if distancing space cannot be maintained, it would require customers to wait in their vehicles or other off-premise areas.

The mayor’s letter also includes provisions for establishments that currently don’t have outdoor seating on the premises to do so to some degree. For example, restaurants and bars could find ways to create outdoor seating on their premises, but it would have to be limited in capacity to 50% of the lowest capacity load on the certificate of occupancy and require local zoning office approval.

Again, there would be a lot of uncertainties with the creation of outdoor seating, but it could mean tables in parking areas or other areas owned by a business not typically utilized for guest seating. A business would not be allowed to utilize public areas such as public sidewalks, for example.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Carozza expressed support for outdoor dining to be allowed for thoe holiday weekend.

“This will be a first-ever Memorial Day weekend for all of us with health, safety, sanitation, masks, and physical distancing protocols in place and enforced,” she wrote. “We are ready with the beach, Boardwalk and many small businesses already open under Phase 1 of the Governor’s Roadmap to Recovery Plan. But we need our restaurants with outdoor seating to be open by Memorial Day and our indoor restaurants with limited capacity to be open by Phase 2. The stabilizing COVID-19 key indicators, the increased testing capabilities, the health and safety enforced protocols, and SELF RESPONSBILITY make the case for allowing restaurant operators to open up their outdoor seating as soon as possible and to look to opening indoor restaurants up with a limited capacity by Phase 2.”

Carozza continued, “So many people have been in pain throughout this COVID-19 crisis- patients and their families; health care personnel who are risking their lives to care for the sick; all our front-line workers whether public safety, food supply chain or general support; our students, parents, and teachers finding new ways to learn; our unemployed as my office continues to assist the over 700 people who have asked us for help; the many small business operators who simply want to open back up; and the elderly who often are isolated and may be suffering from depression.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.