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Middletown looks at loosening outdoor rules for restaurants, bars to ease coronavirus transition

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Middletown Borough Council is looking to relax requirements of the borough’s outdoor seating ordinance, to help restaurants and bars struggling to survive due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A resolution is expected before council June 3 allowing council to suspend many of the requirements in the existing ordinance, at least until October.

The effort follows discussions Councilor Scott Sites has been having with a number of restaurants and bars.

Bars and restaurants in Middletown cannot legally seat customers outdoor until Gov. Tom Wolf approves Dauphin County moving into the green phase of COVID-19 restrictions.

Dauphin County is still in the red phase, in which bars and restaurants can only serve takeout and delivery. That’s still the case in the less restrictive yellow phase, where the county will move Friday.

RELATED STORY: Gov. Wolf outlines what restaurants will look like in green phase and in yellow, where Dauphin will be

“Our goal is that when Gov. Wolf gives them the green light to proceed, we want this to be in place to allow them to go right from then,” Sites told the Press & Journal on Thursday.

Council in July 2018 passed an ordinance allowing restaurants and bars to offer outdoor seating on public sidewalks. Council also approved a companion ordinance exempting restaurants permitted to serve alcohol on public sidewalks from provisions of the borough open container law. 

Both changes were passed at the urging of Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works at South Union and West Emaus streets. But Tattered Flag never followed through applying to the borough for permission for outdoor seating.

Restrictions in the ordinance “made it almost impossible for some places to do it, including us,” said Pat Devlin, one of the partners who own Tattered Flag.

To date, no Middletown business has applied to the borough to allow outdoor seating, according to borough Manager Ken Klinepeter. 

Outdoor seating would increase the revenue potential for Roberto’s Pizza on South Union Street, especially if the restaurant can’t have as many customers inside, owner David Kitner told the Press & Journal.

“We will 100 percent look into it” if council suspends the restrictions in the current ordinance, he said. “A lot of businesses that rely on sit-down customers need this and should have it.”

The seriousness of what’s at stake was underscored by a public comment council received at the start of the May 19 meeting from Steve Wian, co-owner of Hops and Barleys on East Main Street just east of the square.

“Sad to say a few businesses will not survive 25 percent occupancy,” Wian told council.

Since the council meeting, the governor’s office put out updated information saying that bars and restaurants will be allowed to operate at 50 percent customer capacity in the green phase.

The capacity restriction makes it “almost pointless for a business like Hops and Barleys,” Wian told council. “Being able to sit outside and serve outside could be the difference between success and failure … please help us help you help this community.”

Sites told the Press & Journal that based on his conversations with the restaurants, what they most want relief from in the ordinance include times during the day when they can offer outdoor seating, as well as during the year.

The ordinance allows outdoor seating from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., from April 1 through Oct. 31.

Businesses would like to offer outdoor seating earlier, perhaps as early as 6 a.m. for restaurants serving breakfast and coffee.

The April-through-October time frame is too limiting, Sites said, noting it was 70 degrees in mid-February.

Restaurants should be free to offer outdoor seating whenever they feel weather conditions allow it, Sites said.

Restaurants should not have to bring in tables and chairs every night after 10 p.m., as this adds to labor and storage costs, Sites said.

Businesses should be able to chain tables and chairs in place and leave them outside, Devlin told the Press & Journal.

Council also should waive the $250 permit fee, and ease restrictions on the layout of tables and chairs, and the kind of physical barrier a restaurant must have to separate customers from the rest of the public sidewalk, Sites said. 

Mayor James H. Curry III noted during the May 19 meeting he had been most adamant in calling for strict requirements regarding the kind of barrier restaurants must install. He wanted restaurants in Middletown to emulate the look of Cape May in New Jersey.

But the pandemic changed things dramatically, he said.

“We are already two months into this and we don’t know exactly when it will end. These people need relief now,” Curry said. “If it was up to me, I would suspend the ordinance in its entirety” except for businesses having to leave enough room on the sidewalk to satisfy federal handicapped-accessibility regulations. “Multiple businesses have talked to me. There are people who will not make it another 30 to 45 days.”

The resolution to be presented June 3 may still require restaurants go through a permit application process, and possibly submit a proposed layout of tables and chairs subject to council approval.

Sites told the Press & Journal restaurants shouldn’t have to submit a layout plan, as long as the business is complying with all Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board regulations.

But overall he felt good about council’s response to the pleas for relief from the restaurants.

“I think we will be able to come to a compromise at least through October, and then hammer out those other details between now and October,” he said.

Besides the economic benefits, outdoor seating would allow Tattered Flag to “spread out” its customers and better protect them from transmission of the coronavirus, Devlin said.

At the end of the day, he said it’s up to business owners to show “that we are capable of handling” outdoor seating on the public sidewalk. “It’s on us.”

“Ultimately the responsibility falls on the property owners to ‘police’ the activities of their customers, especially when alcohol is involved,” Wian told the Press & Journal via Facebook after listening to council’s discussion during the May 19 meeting. “Our hands are tied until we are out of the yellow (phase) anyway. That being said, we need to be ready to put our foot on the gas when the light turns green. I applaud each one of the (council) members for moving this resolution one step closer to reality.”