Governor Ned Lamont signed a bill into law Wednesday that extends a relaxation of outdoor dining regulations until March 31, 2022.
H. B. 6610, “An Act Concerning The Provision of Outdoor Food and Beverage Service By Restaurants,” allows local planning officials to authorize or expand outdoor dining at restaurants and loosen local zoning rules. The state Senate passed the bill unanimously on Tuesday.
Outdoor eating permits now no longer require significant paperwork like site surveys or traffic studies. Restaurants that have already received permits for placing tables on sidewalks or in parking lots throughout the pandemic are allowed to continue doing so until spring of next year. Dining establishments that closed throughout the pandemic are also able to implement outdoor dining more quickly through an expedited process.
Bruce Flax, executive director of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said outdoor seating has greatly benefitted restaurants in Mystic throughout the pandemic.
“For restaurants to have the assurance that they won’t have to go through all of that red tape to get outdoor seating done will be a sigh of relief,” Flax said. “In Mystic, when you walk around and see people sitting outside restaurants, it’s a really good feeling and it adds charm to the area.”
Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants along the shoreline will benefit greatly from the legislation, as the standard paperwork and regulations can be “a tremendous barrier” to outdoor dining.
She shared the story of one restaurant owner in Stonington who faced significant challenges setting up outdoor dining at his restaurant due to state and local regulations.
“I spoke to him last week, and he was a lighter man,” Konicki said. “It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.”
The restaurant owner, who declined to be identified due to ongoing permit negotiations with state and local officials, said that while the bill is incredibly helpful now, longer-term changes would be more valuable to the industry.
“This eliminates all of the headache for a year, but it’s temporary,” he said. “It can’t just be the governor waving his wand. We need to have better processes to get this stuff done in the long term.”
According to the Connecticut Restaurant Association, more than 600 restaurants have closed in Connecticut since the start of the pandemic, and outdoor dining was a lifeline for establishments across the state.
“The two months when Connecticut shut down dining entirely were some of the darkest days ever faced by our industry,” said Dan Meiser, Chairman of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “Thankfully, many local restaurants were eventually able to use outdoor dining as a tool to stay in business, and keep people employed.”
State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, introduced the bill on the Senate floor. He noted that municipalities wishing to permanently expand the availability of outdoor dining would be allowed to speed up changes to their zoning rules.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, outdoor dining was a lifeline for many restaurants around the state, enabling them to stay afloat and even driving business on some Main Streets and downtown areas, desperately needed amid the economic downturn of the time,” Needleman said. “We need to continue to extend this lifeline to our restaurants and allow them to continue to benefit from this legislation.”