Shaun McCarthy, owner of Dock Fore on Fore Sreet in Portland’s Old Port, is frustrated with how the city’s change in regulations for outdoor seating has played out. McCarthy will only have a quarter of the outdoor seating that he had last year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Portland restaurants are starting to set up more tables and chairs outside for the season, but there won’t be as many as there were the last two summers.

Changes to the city’s outdoor dining regulations took effect last month, ending its more flexible, pandemic-era permitting standards and frustrating some Old Port restaurant and bar owners.

In May 2020, during the pandemic-induced state of emergency, the city changed its outdoor dining regulations to allow for better social distancing and to help businesses keep and attract customers. The changes included loosening restrictions on the use of parking spots for outdoor dining (called parklets), reducing application fees and closing off several streets to through traffic, including Dana, Milk and Wharf, as well as parts of Middle and Exchange streets.

But in September, the city adopted a new set of regulations, called Open Air Portland, which took effect in April. Some of the closed streets will remain permanently closed, and business owners can still apply for up to two parklets. But sticking points in the permitting process are causing headaches for some businesses that will have reduced outdoor seating as a result.

“We will have one quarter of the outdoor seating that we did last year,” said Shaun McCarthy, owner of Fore Street bar Dock Fore, which last year could seat up to 100 people outside, the equivalent of about four parklets. This year, McCarthy said, his permit will only allow space outside for fewer than 25 customers.

“We’re better off than three years ago when we didn’t have outdoor seating at all,” he said. “But the worrisome part is the cost. The sales tax revenue is going to be much lower for the state.”

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McCarthy said his reduced outdoor seating this summer also means he couldn’t move forward with three planned new hires. “It’s a shame. Customers, locals, tourists, they loved the outdoor seating. It’s just not going to be the same atmosphere.”

Diners eat outside in a closed off area at Boothby Square on Fore Street in May 2021. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“We worked hard to be as creative as possible and pivot quickly during COVID,” said Jessica Grondin, director of communications for the city. “But I totally understand the frustration.”

Grondin said the state plumbing code has been a particular “pain point” for some restaurants and bars. The code, which was not stringently applied over the past two years to help businesses during the pandemic, requires establishments to have one toilet and one urinal for every 50 male customers, and two toilets for every 50 female customers.

Relaxed enforcement allowed establishments to increase their seating capacity without needing to add bathroom facilities. The code is back to full enforcement now, and because it is a state regulation, the city is unable to amend it.

Michele Corry, co-owner of Petite Jacqueline, said her restaurant had about 20 seats on Milk Street last year. But because it doesn’t have enough bathrooms, the restaurant won’t be able to have outdoor seating this year.

“Overall, it’s going to be a disappointment to the locals and the tourists because they loved the outdoor dining, and it made them feel safe. I think there’s this idea that we’re back to normal, and it’s not. We’re still digging out of the hole” caused by the pandemic, Corry said.

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Still, some business owners said they were more inclined to simply roll with the changes. “I’m incredibly grateful for the leniency the city gave us during the pandemic,” said Joshua Miranda, owner of Blyth & Burrows and Via Vecchia, both in the Old Port. Workers on Friday morning were assembling a deck outside Blyth & Burrows on Exchange Street, where Miranda said he’ll have 16 seats this season, down from 20-something seats last year.

“I think it adds a lot to the city landscape,” Miranda said of the parklet seating outside of restaurants and bars. But he noted that he saw the changes coming, and that nobody should be all that surprised that the city enacted the Open Air Portland regulations as officials said they would.

Central Provisions on Fore Street recently removed the five-figure deck it built and used for outdoor seating last season because the restaurant wasn’t granted approval for it this season. Its owners declined to answer questions about how the change would affect their restaurant.

Yet not everybody in Old Port is sorry to see the new regulations enacted. “I think it’ll be a better situation for traffic flow and parking places,” said Joe Redman, owner of the Fore Street men’s clothing store Joseph’s of Portland, across Dana Street from Central Provisions. “I assume the restaurants will be fine.”

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