For the second time since the start of the pandemic, the Boston Licensing Board called in North End restaurant owners to urge them to do a better job breaking up lines of hungry people and ensuring their workers wear their masks properly.
But in a Zoomed hearing this afternoon, the board also laid out requirements for restaurants to add heaters to their expanded patio spaces along sidewalks and in parking spaces as the city expands patio season through December: Propane heaters need Fire Department approval - although the city will waive the $150 inspection fee - while electric heaters do not, but wires for electric heaters can't be run across sidewalks. Also, if a snowstorm is on the way, the city will give restaurants two days to remove all their seats and tables to let snowplows get through.
Damien DiPaola, owner of Carmelina's on Hanover Street, however, said all those fancy heaters are "purely esthetic" without some way to retain their heat around diners at individual tables.
"All this conversation is great, but we're not keeping people warm in November and on October nights," he said.
The problem: The city won't allow tents on the patios that sit on public ways, including sidewalks, not because the city doesn't trust owners to buy tents made of fireproof canvas, but because on the neighborhood's narrow streets, they just would cause too many "sight line" issues for firefighters and others trying to drive down the streets. A Fire Department official said that this summer, firefighters had problems even with the umbrellas that many restaurants put up, because they were worried they might catch them on their trucks as they went by, sending them flying.
Board Chairwoman Kathleen Joyce said the board did get an application today from one restaurant for a possible alternative: Clear plexiglass boards attached to the barriers around the patio, with individual clear partitions between tables. She said the board is still reviewing that idea.
DiPaola said there has to be an answer and pointed to northern Europe, where restaurants have been offering cold-weather outdoor dining for years. Joyce asked for a bit of patience because while it's true some European countries have figured it out, late-season outdoor dining is a new concept in Boston, driven by the Covid-19 crisis.
Warren Mustacchio, of BenCotto on Hanover Street, questioned why the city was so opposed to tents when it has always allowed them during weekend fests along the street.
Board Executive Secretary Lesley Delaney Hawkins replied that the key difference is that streets are closed for festivals, so there's no issue with vehicular traffic during them.
DiPaola in turn replied to that: "Wouldn't winter be the perfect time to close off Hanover Street?" That would allow for tents to keep diners toasty while eliminating the sight-line problems, which would help keep restaurants open and even mean some extra meals-tax money for the city and state.
John Romano, Mayor Walsh's North End liaison, said his office and BTD are continuing to look at ways to shut Hanover and Salem streets, but that they keep running into the same public-safety concerns; for example, that the neighborhood fire station is itself on Hanover Street.
Dan Manning, assistant director at ISD, said they city really wants to do what it can to encourage outdoor dining, if only for health reasons: While the city experienced only one or two Covid-19 cases related to restaurants in the early part of the pandemic, when only takeout and delivery was allowed, there "has been an uptick" in restaurant-related cases since the state and city allowed the limited resumption of indoor dining.