OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week voted to renew the temporary outdoor seating permit program put in place last June for another 12 months after the program expired on Dec. 31.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced last June an easing of some of the restrictions under stage one of his recovery plan, including an allowance for outdoor dining at businesses with all other directives in place including the proper distancing of tables, the wearing of masks and other sanitation and hygiene measures. Ocean City immediately responded with temporary outdoor seating permit program, which allowed businesses to find creative ways to find more outdoor seating within their property footprint and, in some cases, within the adjacent public right-of-way with proper approvals.
While far from perfect, the program did allow many businesses to continue service and even thrive in some cases during the warm weather. In the temporary outdoor seating permit program, businesses were allowed to submit applications that were reviewed by the town staff, the county’s Board of Licensed Commissioners, the Fire Marshal’s Office and the county health department.
Because it was June and the season was hitting its stride, the town and its partners created a streamlined application process to allow for businesses to quickly react to the governor’s new directives, which changed weekly at the time. However, the program expired on Dec. 31. Planning and Community Development Director and City Manager Doug Miller on Monday requested the Mayor and Council renew the program for another 12 months or some period which they desired.
The request came from the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (HMRA) and individual businesses attempting to plan for the upcoming spring and summer seasons with the uncertainties of seating capacity and other restrictions as the COVID pandemic wears on.
“This was a real success story from last year,” said Miller. “The permit process was well-received, and 66 businesses went through that process.”
Neville explained the council could decide to simply let the program run its course or renew it for a period of their choosing, although the recommendation was for another 12 months.
“It expired on Dec. 31 and the request is to renew it for next year,” he said. “The council might consider renewing it for 12 months to cover all of next year.”
Neville said the other regulatory agencies involved in the permit process were on board. After some discussion, the council voted unanimously to renew the program for another year, and also approved a permit application process for requests to use parts of the public right-of-way, which was handled as a separate issue.
“The real intent of this is having it available for next year,” he said. “All of our partners in the process last year feel like it went well. The only request from the Fire Marshal’s Office is to review the use of temporary heaters in tent areas.”
Councilman Mark Paddack, who made the motion to approve the renewal, said there were some requests that were more complicated then others and suggested further oversight on those requests.
“Some businesses wanted to run gas lines from their buildings to temporary heaters,” he said. “If it’s a temporary situation during the shoulder season, it could be reviewed by staff.”
Councilman Frank Knight said there was some confusion in the way the program renewal was written in terms of private property and the use of public right-of-way.
“Language in here says no public ways can be used for seating,” he said. “If memory serves, we had a lot of requests for public ways to be used for temporary outdoor seating.”
Neville explained there were some issues with requests to use portions of the public right-of-way such as insurance liability for example. He said those requests would be handled differently on a case-by-case basis.
Mayor Rick Meehan said it was fitting for the program to be renewed at a time when so many businesses are struggling to hang on and recover.
“This is something we can do for our business community,” he said. “It also created some nice experiences for our residents and visitors. The businesses were creative, they adapted to this and followed the guidelines and led by example.”
Meehan did question if the program would continue if and when dining capacity restrictions eased.
“Does this continue if the restrictions are lifted and full capacity is restored?” he asked.
Neville said that bridge would be crossed when it arrived.
“I think we can approve this for 12 months and see where we are down the road with the capacity restrictions,” he said. “We can address issues on a case-by-case basis as they come up.”
Councilman John Gehrig said the businesses should be allowed to be creative whether the restrictions are eased or not.
“I support this all year-round regardless of what happens with the restrictions,” he said. “I think we need to allow our businesses to be creative and recover.”