Ocean City To Ease Path For Restaurants Hungry For Outdoor Dining Sales; Beach Picnic Tables Planned Off Boardwalk

Ocean City To Ease Path For Restaurants Hungry For Outdoor Dining Sales; Beach Picnic Tables Planned Off Boardwalk
Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — Some local businesses in the race to get open with limited outdoor seating on their private property got a boost from the Mayor and Council late Thursday in the form of conditional approval as long as their applications have been submitted and they are in the pipeline, while others seeking to use public property to facilitate outdoor dining are being expedited.

In a nutshell, those businesses with pre-existing outdoor dining still need to submit a permit application to the health department for review and future inspection, likely as soon as next week, but have the green light to move forward with Friday’s 5 p.m. opening.

Similarly, those who have submitted the multi-layered, multi-agency applications to utilize their own private property for outdoor seating are having their applications expedited and are also allowed to open those areas at 5 p.m. on Friday as a temporary conditional use with the caveat they are still subject to review and future inspection.

Finally, those establishments who have submitted applications to public property for outdoor dining are still subject to a more stringent review and won’t have those permit applications immediately rubber-stamped, although the Mayor and Council vowed to move quickly through the approval process with the appropriate collaborating agencies and departments. It’s important to note in all cases, there are no additional fees associated with the permitting process.

On Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan eased restrictions on outdoor dining at restaurants and food service operations around the state including, of course, Ocean City. Essentially, the governor’s directive covers those establishments with existing outdoor dining on their own private property. Although the governor’s new directive did not include provisions for any indoor dining at this point in the state’s recovery plan, Hogan did encourage local jurisdictions to work with their business communities on approvals for utilizing certain public areas on a limited basis such as sidewalks or closed streets, for example, to accommodate temporary outdoor dining where practical.

The Mayor and Council met late Thursday to address those parallel issues. Prior to Hogan’s new directive regarding outdoor dining announced on Wednesday, City Manager Doug Miller and Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville and staff had been working closely on a multi-layer permit process for outdoor dining.

Those layers include the town’s zoning department, the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office, the Worcester County Health Department and the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners, each of whom hold sway over the various elements of each establishment’s reopening plan. The result of that collaboration is a stream-lined, one-stop and fairly simple permit that can be reviewed and facilitated rather quickly.

Some establishments without previously-existing outdoor dining have submitted the multi-layer applications for utilizing space on their own private property for outdoor seating including, for example, parking lot or other privately-owned areas not used for outdoor seating in the past.

Others have submitted applications seeking approval to use public areas such as sidewalks, for example, adjacent to their existing property for outdoor seating. Those applications are more complicated because they involve liability issues, public safety issues such as fire lanes, ADA compliance and a myriad of other potential concerns that require closer scrutiny.

Again, those establishments with pre-existing outdoor seating areas do not need to go through the multi-agency, multi-layered permit process. However, they do need to submit a permit to the county health department outlining their proposals for floor plans in terms of table spacing, amended food service operations and substantial changes in how they typically operate. However, it would be impractical for establishments with pre-existing outdoor dining areas or those requesting to utilize private property to have physical inspections within the roughly 48-hour window between the governor’s announcement on Wednesday and the 5 p.m. target date for reopening on Friday.

“Those that currently have outdoor seating still have to submit a plan to the health department to set forth how the guidelines will be facilitated,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.
“Others that are seeking to utilize their own private property for outdoor seating still have to have permit applications submitted. However, they’re not going to get to inspecting each of the establishments before next week, so if they have their application submitted, they will be able to go ahead with reopening for outside seating on Friday.”

Neville explained as of late Thursday, 12 of the multi-layered permit applications had been submitted including nine seeking to use their own private property to facilitate outdoor dining, such as parking lots and other areas. Three of the applications submitted were requesting the use of public property adjacent to their own property to facilitate outdoor dining, two of which requested to utilize public sidewalks and one that requested to put picnic tables in the public right-of-way on a side street adjacent to their private property.

Neville said the nine seeking to use non-traditional areas of their own private property were being expedited and would likely be turned around before Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline. The council voted unanimously to allow those nine establishments to open their makeshift outdoor seating areas on Friday with the caveat their applications were still subject to further review and future inspection.

While those nine were already in the pipeline as of late Thursday, several more similar applications will likely be submitted on Friday and the council voted unanimously to also allow those to move forward with the 5 p.m. Friday opening as long as they are in the pipeline.

As far as the three applications to utilize a portion of public property to accommodate outdoor seating, those are far more complicated because they involve potential liability issues for the city, ingress and egress issues, ADA compliance issues, public safety and fire safety issues. There was briefly a motion on the floor to approve those for a Friday opening as well, but it ultimately died for lack of a second when legal counsel pointed out there are significant issues to resolve before simply allowing them to use public property without careful vetting and review.

However, the council did agree to move as quickly through the vetting process and have those applications approved as quickly as possible. For the record, the two requests to use a portion of the public sidewalk were from a pair of businesses on Wicomico Street, while the request to put picnic tables in the public right-of-way came from a business on 16th Street.

In a separate but related issue, the council on Thursday unanimously approved placing picnic tables on the public beach along the Boardwalk where practical to provide additional areas for residents and visitors to consume food and non-alcoholic beverages carried out from Boardwalk businesses. The goal is to alleviate some of the concerns raised earlier this week about the lack of physical distancing on the Boardwalk benches.

The council left it up to the discretion of the city manager and the public works department and staff to determine where and just how many picnic tables can and will be placed off the beach in the downtown area. It’s important to note Boardwalk businesses cannot provide table service at the beach picnic tables. It’s also important to point out drinking alcoholic beverages at the temporary picnic tables on the beach is not allowed, nor is drinking alcoholic beverages allowed at any time on the beach or Boardwalk. Anecdotally, it appeared in some cases over last week’s holiday weekend the town’s open container laws were being ignored by guests and relaxed by law enforcement, but the council made it known in no uncertain terms drinking alcohol at the temporary picnic tables on the beach will not be allowed.

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.