SARATOGA SPRINGS — City restaurants could return to temporarily expanded outdoor seating as soon as March 15, but whether they will be able to do it for the entire summer — the traditional tourist season — remains uncertain.
The City Council, which last year approved and repeatedly extended outdoor dining on sidewalks and even in on-street parking spaces to help pull the city’s restaurants through last year’s COVID-related restrictions on indoor dining, voted Tuesday to let the arrangement resume later this month, but won’t guarantee it will be extended beyond June 30.
The expiration date was kept in place out of concern that the state rules limiting indoor dining could have changed by then. If restaurants and bars are allowed to resume full capacity because COVID cases have continued to decline, having too many outdoor seats could potentially put establishments at risk of exceeding their occupancy limits, set by the State Liquor Authority, City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis said.
The March 15 date will give restaurants more time to plan and apply for the needed city permit, said Accounts Commissioner John Franck. “We understand there may still be snow on the ground, but that will give the people the ability to get their applications in earlier, so we can start the process earlier,” he said.
The city has for many years allowed restaurants to have outdoor patio seating on Broadway during the summer, but this expands that to let restaurants use parts of the public sidewalks and parking spaces, with permission.
There’s also a hope that the city, which had a drastically reduced tourism season last year with Saratoga Race Course operating but closed to spectators, could see a rebound this year. Saratoga County, like most of upstate, has seen its COVID test positivity rate drop since January peaks. The seven-day rolling average for the county was 2.5% on Wednesday, and has been been below 3% since Feb. 9.
With improved positivity rates and in anticipation that more people with be getting vaccinated, some city officials are hopeful that fans will again able to attend the track, and also the potential that the city could again hold the kind of special events that draw crowds into businesses, bars and restaurants.
If those changes come to pass, council members acknowledge that increased traffic could make barricading off parts of narrower downtown streets like Caroline, Phila and Henry problematic.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything further until we’re sure we won’t have 100% capacity,” said Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, whose department maintains the streets and was involved in safety discussions about blocking off parts of streets.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said she doubts the city will be able to have a full tourism season in 2021, and she would have preferred the outdoor seating rules be extend through the entire summer so businesses have more certainty in deciding how to invest.
“COVID is going to be with us for awhile,” Madigan said during Tuesday’s Zoom council meeting. “Our businesses are struggling.”
The began allowing expanded outdoor dining on sidewalks last June, when restaurants were emerging from nearly three months of not being allowed to offer indoor dining at all, as part of the state’s efforts to control spread of the COVID-19 virus.
When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, by executive order, allowed indoor dining to resume, it was with a 50% capacity restriction, to make sure people weren’t seated too closely togther — a rule that remains in place for restaurants and bars across upstate. The city responded with the temporary outdoor dining rule, which was initially to run through the summer tourism and horse-racing season and expire last Labor Day. In a series of votes, it was expanded through Dec. 31, then shut down for the winter.