Server Lyndsey Green sets up an outdoor table Monday at The Moose in Falmouth. The outdoor dining space, allowed under a town emergency ordinance, will be disallowed starting Friday. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

Falmouth restaurant owners say Friday’s end to the emergency provision allowing them to provide outdoor dining is premature as they continue to struggle financially during the pandemic.

The Town Council voted Aug. 9 not to renew the emergency ordinance in light of the state lifting its own emergency designation.  The measure enabled local restaurants to add additional seating outdoors without having to go through a lengthy and sometimes costly review and planning process.

As of Aug. 20, restaurant owners must discontinue use of their outdoor spaces, but may apply to the Planning Board to reopen them.  Restaurant owners say the application process can take months and entail high costs for design and engineering, both tough obstacles when they are already dealing with financial losses from the pandemic.

Five votes were needed to extend the ordinance, but it received only four. Voting against the extension were Councilor Jay Trickett, who was under the impression the ordinance didn’t end until Oct. 8, and Councilor Janice DeLima. Chairperson Amy Kuhn was absent.

Trickett, the only councilor who spoke at any length at the meeting about the renewal, said he was “uncomfortable” with extending it because Gov. Janet Mills called off the state of emergency June 30.

The Aug. 9 meeting was moved from in-person to remote due to “CDC’s designation of Cumberland County as having ‘substantial’ transmission rates,” according to the town website.

Restaurant owners who spoke at the meeting and later with The Forecaster said their outdoor dining spaces under the town’s emergency ordinance have been crucial to staying open during the pandemic and they are still necessary as COVID-19 cases and concerns go back up in light of new variants.

“I don’t think the council realizes just how much money has been lost by the tax-paying restaurants in their town. In 32 years of business, we’ve never had so many difficult challenges as we’ve faced over the past 18 months,” Ricetta’s owner Ron Stephan told The Forecaster.

“The decision makes even less sense when you consider the median age in Falmouth and the large number of elderly residents they are putting at risk,” Stephan said. “Although the town council may be done with it, this virus is not done with us yet.”

Restaurant owners were joined by Councilor Pete Lafond in their dismay about the council’s decision.

“I was disappointed in the vote and I favored extending it,” Lafond said. “It’s a choice they should have, given the surge in cases.”

Six restaurants offered outdoor dining under the emergency measure: Ricetta’s, JP’s Bistro, Dockside Grill, Rivalries, Bueno Loco and Moose Pub.

Ricettta’s already has invested $30,000 for outdoor awnings, Stephan said.

“We will be applying for a permanent outside dining area for the restaurant soon. It will be a very costly endeavor and takes months in the Planning Board approval process,” he said. “Then we have to find a contractor available, which puts us into next spring at best.”

Stephan couldn’t quantify how much business the emergency outdoor space brought in, but said “we fill it almost every Friday night.”

J.P.’s Bistro owner John Gagnon said outdoor dining has had a “huge impact” for his business and his employees.

“I had an 80-seat dining room that I lost 50% of seating in. I could only seat 40. So that outside seating was making up for that. I kept my employees going through this whole thing. To me, that was the most important thing,” Gagnon told The Forecaster. 

Outdoor dining has continued to make a positive difference, he said.

People are still uneasy with things lifted, even after we were thought to be free from the pandemic,” Gagnon said. 

Stephan and Bueno Loco co-owner Gregin Doxsee told The Forecaster that outdoor dining in town has been on restaurant property, as opposed to cities like Portland or Westbrook that have shut down public roads or sidewalks so they can be converted to dining areas.

“It’s our property. We aren’t in the public right-of-way,” Doxsee said

At the council meeting, The Moose owner Bob Waitkevich said restaurants are also now dealing with staffing shortages, and the financial impact on businesses is still at emergency levels.

“We use the outdoor seating. It allows us to serve the demographic of the public not comfortable indoors with the variants,” Waitkevich said. 

It also allows The Moose to better accommodate unvaccinated children under age 12, who are a big part of their client base, he said.

While COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, Trickett said, virus variants were not a part of the initial emergency ordinance. Rather than extending the ordinance, the town should be “carefully crafting new responses.”

“The surge would carry more weight for me if we weren’t just copy-and-pasting the preamble for the emergency order month after month,” the councilor added. “The (variant) wasn’t part of this at all.”

The Planning Board process is important for residents, he said.

“That process we have is to give the public an opportunity to weigh in and require various notifications and a time to process before we do anything and subject residents to it,” Trickett said. “We did this last summer because we didn’t have time for it, it was an emergency, and we knew the impact was going to come fast.”

 

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