OCEAN CITY — Resort officials late Thursday approved the first batch of applications for private businesses seeking to utilize public property for outdoor seating, including two requests to put tables on public sidewalks and two others to put tables in the public roadway.
Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan announced a relaxation of some of the restrictions under stage one of his recovery plan including an allowance for outdoor dining at businesses with all other current directives in place including proper distancing of tables, the wearing of masks and other sanitation and hygiene measures.
Ocean City food service establishments fall into one of three categories in terms of outdoor seating. Naturally, those with existing outdoor dining areas were given the immediate green light to begin utilizing those areas last week with the standard directives in place regarding table spacing and the wearing of masks.
The second category includes those businesses without existing outdoor seating, but had opportunities on their own private property to create areas for outdoor seating. There is a separate multi-layered, multi-agency approval process for those situations and many have been doing that all week with many more in the approval pipeline.
The third category includes those businesses seeking to use a portion of public property such as sidewalks or street areas. Because those situations are more complicated with insurance and liability issues, public access, ADA compliance and fire safety issues among others, the Mayor and Council late last week decided not to rubber-stamp those applications.
Instead, the Mayor and Council decided to have staff review the applications and make a recommendation to the elected officials, who would approve or deny them. On Monday, after considerable debate, the Mayor and Council decided to meet daily at 4 p.m. in the current virtual format if necessary to expedite the approval process and get those businesses operating as quickly as possible.
On Thursday afternoon, the Mayor and Council had a total of five applications for utilizing public property for outdoor seating, although one was withdrawn because the application had found another solution on private property. Each of the other four were approved after a review of the application and a look at the site plan for the temporary operation.
The first two were requests from businesses on Wicomico Street seeking to put tables on the sidewalk in front of their facilities. The first one was the Bearded Clam, which was asking to put four tables along the 45 feet of sidewalk in front of the building. The second was a similar request from the Crawl Street Tavern to put three tables in the 40 feet of sidewalk along the building on Wicomico Street.
For both requests, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville added the caveat if the tables could be placed in such a way to ensure there is 36 inches of open sidewalk for the public to utilize, the sidewalk would not be closed. If the 36-inch width could not be met, the proprietor would have to put up signs stating the sidewalk was closed and advising the public to cross over to the other side of the street.
Mayor Rick Meehan emphasized the temporary tables for each of the businesses on Wicomico Street were for seated patrons only.
“We need to make sure they know the tables are only available to people sitting at them,” he said. “We don’t want a situation where we have 30 people crowding around two little tables. The businesses in that area will control that. They do a great job with that.”
The next two applications were more complicated in that they requested utilizing a portion of the public right-of-way in the street for outdoor dining. The first was for Layton’s on 16th Street, which was seeking to add seven picnic tables along 90 feet of public right-of-way on 16th Street to the south of the restaurant.
Neville told the Mayor and Council upfront the staff review, which included the Planning and Community Development department, Public Works, Engineering, legal counsel and risk management, among others, was not recommending any use of the public street for outdoor dining for safety reasons. However, if it was the Mayor and Council’s desire to approve the application, staff recommended requiring a concrete barrier such as a Jersey wall to cordon off the outdoor seating area and ensure no vehicle traffic could impact it.
After considerable debate, the Mayor and Council unanimously approved Layton’s request with the caveat the proprietor must install a Jersey barrier at least on the east end of the temporary seating area along with other barriers to ensure diners don’t wander accidentally into the roadway. It was pointed out 16th Street has light traffic, the restaurant does not serve alcohol and is essentially a day-time breakfast operation.
“He currently has eight picnic tables on his own property and every Saturday and Sunday, there are people lined up waiting for them,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “Those eight tables are not enough to sustain his business if we don’t approve this application.”
The fourth and final application was filed by Phillips Crab House on 24th Street and was somewhat unique in that it was the first to essentially ask for a street closure. Phillips was seeking to block off a portion of little-used Upshur Lane along the south side of the establishments with barricades on each end of the temporary dining area.
Phillips was seeking 15 picnic tables, or roughly 60 seats, along the closed portion of Upshur Lane. After getting assurances from the fire marshal’s office the closure of a portion of Upshur Lane created no issues with fire safety or access to hydrants or trash pick-up, the council unanimously approved the request.
“This seems like an excellent solution,” said DeLuca. “Upshur is basically a non-existent lane. This is an example of what a street closure should look like. These are extremely challenging and unique times and we should do everything we can to help our businesses.”
All four of the requests for temporary outdoor seating on public property were approved. Neville said no other applications had been submitted as of late Thursday, although he anticipated more would start coming in. Again, the council will meet each business day at 4 p.m. as necessary to review applications and expedite the approval process.