Restaurants and Town Officials Scramble to Open Outdoor Dining Across Southeast Connecticut

Municipal officials in the region have scrambled to process applications for expanded outdoor dining so that restaurants could open outdoors on May 20 in accordance with Gov. Lamont’s 7mm order on May 12.

“We have about 20 applications for temporary outdoor dining permits and we’re expecting the number to increase,” said Christina M. Costa, a zoning official for the Town of Old Saybrook, on May 21. “The applications are coming in fast.” 

The executive order delegates temporary outdoor dining permit approvals to municipal staff until the state of emergency is lifted. The permits allow restaurants to “provide outdoor dining space outside their permitted premises, including public sidewalks, parking lots or space owned by an adjacent business.” 

Restaurants that had previously-approved seating on decks and patios were also allowed to open outdoors within COVID-19 restrictions on May 20 and did not need the temporary permit. 

“We have about 49 annual outdoor seating renewal requests from pre-COVID 19,” said Costa, “The zoning commission approved those on May 18.”

Each town had a mere eight days to create its own application form to execute the temporary permit order.

Costa said her department put together a form that required a survey or site plan showing the dimensions of the outdoor dining area and the locations of tables and chair, waitstaff and cashier stations, waste receptacles and any other furniture, as walkways, egresses and safety barriers for the protection of patrons. Applicants were also required to complete a questionnaire/narrative describing details of the business. The application required approval by the town building official, fire marshal, zoning enforcement officer, chief of police and the town’s health department, the Connecticut River Area Health District. 

Similarly, Eric Knapp, who is the planning, zoning & development coordinator in Westbrook, said he drafted the Temporary Certificate for Outdoor Dining form that requires his signature and approvals from the town building official, fire marshal and the Westbrook Health Department. 

As of May 21, he said he’d issued six outdoor dining permits to establishments “pretty much along the Route 1 corridor.” And he had two more in the pipeline. 

Knapp said he included a number of departments in the temporary permit application process because the same team will participate in enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, including a standard six-foot separation between tables, in all outdoor eating establishments whether temporarily permitted or previously approved. 

“I will go around and check and this will also be enforced through the health department and the building official and fire marshal. All these various people will rotate through and if anyone spots anything they will call the rest of us,” he said. “It’s all being done ‘seat of the pants’ and quickly and hopefully enough eyes are watching and it will all turn out fine.” 

Steve Mansfield, director of Ledge Light Health District, said the state health code has no prohibitions regulating outdoor dining. 

“It falls under different zoning and building regulations but it’s not under the Connecticut Public Health Code. [Outdoor dining] is something that we allow under normal licenses,” he said. “We focus on food preparation — as long as all food prep is inside, that’s what’s required.” 

Mansfield said the agency has not seen any appreciable difference in the number complaints since the partial reopening on the 20th.

“We’ve received the normal number of noncompliance complaints. Generally they’re associated with the public and not the establishment itself. Especially when you have beautiful days like today and on the weekends, people tend to crowd around popular food service establishments,” he said. “It’s difficult for restaurants to control what the public does even if they put in place all kinds of mechanisms and guidelines.” 

Parking lots, sidewalks, picnic tables

“We’re working closely with the town to determine where it would be ideal for not only the flow of foot traffic but to maximize the amount of space for seating. We’ve always had just a few cafe tables outside so we plan on opening soon with those tables,” said Chef Shelley DeProto of the Red Hen in Old Saybrook on May 21.  

DeProto said her restaurant has been closed since Lamont’s order on March 16 and will reopen with both takeout and outdoor dining. 

“We’ve been closed up until now and we have the staff in right now and we’re discussing what everyone’s roles will have and how to serve our customers safely, how to comply with COVID-19 guidelines,” she said. “We’re revamping the menu. We want to gear it toward people who want to take to the beach or to a park or outside at their own house and have it still be good, food that travels well.” 

At the Lyme Tavern in Niantic, where outdoor dining was set up on a portion of the parking lot, lunch was busy on first day open but dinner was “a little slow, said Kit Hartley, a senior staff member who has worked there for 30 years.  

“It was chilly and we probably had more people during the day,” she said. “We had some people who made reservations who did not come in. We did more in take-out than seated dinners.” 

The restaurant has been “going pretty strong with curbside delivery since March 16. Up until this week the restaurant continued to employ a few cooks and a delivery person.

“Now we brought back a partial amount of our waitstaff, a lot got laid off because we’re not open inside. We stil don’t have enough tables to rehire the whole waitstaff,” she said .

At the Little Pub in Old Saybrook, owner Doug Grabe said the restaurant reopened on May 20 with a temporary permit for picnic tables along the side of the building and seating on its previously approved patio.

“We took reservations and we filled up to our capacity based on social distance guidelines,” he said. “I think everyone was just so excited they would have put up with anything besides freezing temperatures or rain. We bought up every patio heater we could find within 30 miles — the pickings were pretty slim, but we managed to secure a bunch.”

Grabe said the restaurant’s business model has always included takeout, which continued while the restaurant was closed to diners. He said he believes customers want to come back but it will take time. 

“As more people see more people going out, more people will go out. It will be slower in the beginning,” he said. 

Work in progress

Dan Bourret, zoning enforcement officer of Old Lyme, said issuing temporary permits was a departure from the way zoning is normally done. 

“Zoning is not temporary, there nothing temporary about zoning,” he said on May 19. “This is a very unique circumstance.” 

Bourret said the temporary permits would be valid in Old Lyme until September 30 or the effective date of the end of the state of emergency, whichever comes first. 

“I chose September 30 to carry the restaurants through most of the outdoor dining season. If the state of emergency continues, they can apply for an extension,” he said. “I’m trying to make the least amount of difficulty as possible for them.”

Bourret said he had written one temporary permit so far.

“I have no more pending applications. Hopefully there will no more curveballs with the executive order. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. Coming up with new forms, it takes time.” 

Bill Mulholland, zoning official of East Lyme, said he had written about three or four temporary permits and had several more waiting for approvals. The town has 15 or 16 previously approved permits for restaurants with outdoor seating on patios and decks that renew annually. 

“One of difficulties is this executive order came out essentially, in my view, abruptly and so we trying to be helpful to restaurants to give them an opportunity to get into business and yet discharge our responsibility in terms of public safety, et cetera,” said Bill Mulholland, zoning official of East Lyme on May 21. “I think everybody — the restaurant owners and the regulatory side —  are learning. It’s a work in progress and as we go we will probably refine some of things.”