Even with the beginning of al fresco dining, “there’s a number of things that are unsorted,” said David Doyle, the owner of Tres Gatos and Casa Verde on Jamaica Plain.
Underneath is a 22-page package of city guidelines laying out the measures restaurants must adhere to if they want outdoor seating, including several new additions this year. These range from mandatory car and workers’ compensation insurance to changes in the type of barriers restaurants can put around their tables. Ropes, planters and wooden railings are out; Restaurants must use concrete lining or water-filled barriers.
“Because this is a pilot program, the guidelines have been updated to address the concerns of both business owners and residents in our neighborhoods,” a city spokesman wrote in a statement.
Boston is in the final year of the three-year effort launched by then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh in 2020 to empower restaurants surviving COVID by allowing them to dine al fresco in public spaces like parking lots and sidewalks. Previously, al fresco dining was only allowed on private property and required permits from at least five city agencies, as well as annual fees and plans drawn up by professionals.
Diners are flocking to the sidewalk seating, and many restaurants have doubled or even tripled their capacity, which has helped them stay afloat. But some neighbors, most intensely in the restaurant-crowded North End, have raised concerns about noise, litter and lost parking spaces.
And this year, the rules have become stricter as the Wu government assesses the long-term future of al fresco dining. For some, these changes mean the extra seating is no longer worth the cost.
David L. Ryan/Globe Contributor
Bessie King of Villa Mexico Cafe had planned to create a sidewalk-level patio in the three parking lots in front of her lunch spot in the Financial District. It would cost $10,000 to build, along with barriers and furniture King bought last year. Once complete, the 35 outdoor seats would provide a huge boost in sales for the café, which is too small to fit indoors.
But the new rules don’t allow for the barriers King already possesses. New ones who qualify total $5,000, which King said she couldn’t afford.
“It’s incredibly unfair for small, local restaurants like us,” said King, whose restaurant often had a line of customers for burritos around the block before the pandemic. During that winter she sometimes saw fewer than 100 customers a day.
“The big chains and partnership groups with say 100 tables can pay $20,000 for outdoor seating. We’re not,” she said. “Independent places bleed money.”
Andy Fadous of Gray’s Hall in South Boston agrees. Ahead of the 2021 alfresco dining season, he worked with a landscape architect to create an industrial-style patio that could be deconstructed any year. But now the barriers do not meet the new requirements.
So Fadous ordered 10 barriers for up to $500 each, but they won’t arrive for a month, which will be delayed when he can open his patio. And they’re bigger, which means less room to sit.
“I wish the city hadn’t done that,” Fadous said. “It confuses a lot of people”
The debate has been liveliest in the North End, where restaurants face fees that restaurants in other neighborhoods do not have. Also, al fresco dining there doesn’t start until May 1st and has to end a month earlier than in other parts of the city. Still, restaurants elsewhere in Boston are weighing the pros and cons.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Some see the added guidance as a sign of progress enacted to help sustain a popular but temporary initiative. Just months into the pandemic, the rapid spread of alfresco dining helped hundreds of restaurants struggling, said Steve Clark, chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Now, he said, clear standards and safety rules would allow more restaurants to keep terraces long-term.
“These regulations could slowly lead to permanent al fresco dining,” he said. “This is one of the true positives of the pandemic.”
Some restaurants, like the Union Oyster House, don’t have a problem with the new measures. The application process “went smoothly,” said employee Wesley Hagan; The restaurant did not face increased insurance or barrier costs. “We have no problems.”
But in Jamaica Plain, the demands angered Ginger Brown, executive director of JP Centre/South Main Streets. She believes this year’s changes are too similar to the bureaucracy that made outdoor dining permits a chore before the pandemic.
Getting permission for patio seating was difficult navigation for many small businesses back then, especially low-income and non-English speaking restaurant owners.
“Supporting the 2022 guidelines and earlier bid process would be tantamount to recognizing that inequality and injustice are simply ‘standard practice’ for our city,” she wrote in a letter to Jamaica Plain News. “Our small businesses would be victims once again.”
Of 10 restaurants in Brown’s neighborhood, she said at least three have been prevented from requesting outdoor seating by the extra rules and costs.
“It’s too expensive, too long, and a long process,” Brown said.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe
Citywide, it’s unclear how many new restaurants have been put off by the guidelines. The city didn’t provide data on how many applications it received or approved in 2022. Last summer, restaurateurs operated 77 outdoor patios in the North End and 51 in Back Bay, the two boroughs with the most outdoor seating.
A spokesman for Wu said the city will give final approval of the new regulations after the state completes a year-long extension of temporary outdoor dining.
But some who have been waiting for their outdoor permit are losing patience.
Doyle, the Tres Gatos owner, said he submitted his application two weeks ago and hasn’t received any response from the city, although al fresco dining begins Friday. Then there’s the riot in the North End. “That’s a lot of extra time employees have to spend communicating and responding,” he added. And the $1,000 he spent on auto insurance even though his restaurant doesn’t own any vehicles.
“We’ve reached a level of exhaustion just trying to understand the guidelines and the reasoning behind them,” Doyle said. “At some point you do things that you have to do without looking at the details because you don’t have much energy left.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.