BOSTON — Some restaurants will pull out patio furniture for the third straight year as the al fresco dining season kicks off in most Boston neighborhoods, while some won’t bother and others will have to wait another month.
Alfresco dining was once a key evasion some Boston restaurants needed to stay afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns, social distancing and capacity restrictions terrorized the shrinking industry — now it faces its final and perhaps most controversial year of the three-year trial first launched in 2020 by then-Mayor Marty Walsh.
Before this pandemic-driven concept, al fresco dining was only allowed on certain private properties, with restaurants requiring full permits and paying high annual fees. To boost the economy, get people out of their homes, and save dying businesses, Walsh allowed al fresco dining in public spaces, including sidewalks and parking lots.
When fewer people were out, eating in parking lots wasn’t as much of a problem, but now city officials fear what could happen, both traffic-wise and safety-wise. A 22-page package outlines guidance for private and public property applications.
Timber or rope slabs can no longer be used as a barrier for terraces, as restaurants will need to switch to either concrete lining or water-filled barriers – which could result in additional costs for already battered restaurants.
“The big chains and partnership groups with, say, 100 tables can pay $20,000 for outdoor seating. We don’t,” Bessie King of Villa Mexico Cafe told the Boston Globe. “Independent places bleed money.”
While most places in the city wipe down wet patio furniture on Friday, the North End won’t be able to start al fresco dining until May 1st. This later start time is coupled with an earlier end date giving restaurants in the North End a much shorter ‘al fresco’ season which could be a major disruption to businesses.
Earlier this month, city officials ruled that North End restaurant owners would have to pay a $7,500 fee just to keep al fresco dining the way they’d been doing for the past two years. All North End restaurant owners have also been asked to pay an additional $450 a month for each parking space they use for outdoor seating, citing narrow sidewalks and limited space for drop-offs and pickups. That fee drew backlash as North End restaurant owners threatened to sue the city and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu instead of complying.
Last summer, the two neighborhoods with the most sidewalk restaurants in the North End operated with 77 makeshift outdoor patios and 51 in the Back Bay.
A spokesman for Wu’s office said the city will issue final approval of the new regulations after the state completes a year-long extension of the temporary al fresco dining initiative.
Friday also marks the end of Boston’s public health emergency declaration, which was first introduced on March 15, 2020 – 747 days ago.