SARATOGA SPRINGS – Outdoor dining, which gave restaurants a shot in the arm during the COVID-19 pandemic as a potentially safer environment, appears poised to be expanded under a plan by Commissioner of Accounts Dillon Moran.
Moran, whose term on the City Council began Jan. 1, is pushing a proposed local law that would make outdoor dining a permanent fixture for the next three years.
He said the proposal already has the backing of the majority of the City Council. Moran is expected to call for a pair of public hearings on the matter — on Feb. 15 and March 1 — during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Moran’s plan would also facilitate outdoor dining by prohibiting vehicle traffic on certain downtown streets with restaurants on weekends during the spring and summer.
The commissioner says giving restaurant owners an assurance the rules won’t change week to week would allow them to make the long-term decision of whether or not to invest in outdoor dining plans.
He said his proposal will eliminate a clause that prohibits restaurants from decorating outdoors. Moran said he doesn’t want the restaurants to build semi-permanent outdoor structures that would require approval from the city’s Design Review Commission.
“But I do want the seating and everything that they’ve been doing to date to be everything that they want it to be, and not just some ad-hoc, quick thing that they threw together,” he said.
Having observed that other communities closed downtown streets to facilitate outdoor dining during warmer weather, Moran said it was unacceptable that the Spa City hadn’t already done so.
Moran’s plan calls for closing a portion of Caroline Street to Maple Avenue, a portion of Phila Street to Putnam Street, and Henry Street from Caroline Street to Lake Avenue.
“When places like a Cohoes and Ballston Spa are already doing this for their businesses, it is unacceptable that Saratoga Springs had done nothing,” he said.
The previous council adopted a more piecemeal approach to allowing outdoor dining. During 2020, it approved and repeatedly extended outdoor dining on sidewalks and even in on-street parking spaces to help pull the city’s restaurants through the COVID-related restrictions on indoor dining.
The city began expanding outdoor dining on sidewalks in June 2020, 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 the spread of COVID-19.
A governor’s executive order allowed indoor dining to resume at the time, with 50% capacity, to make sure people weren’t seated too closely together.
During 2021, the city allowed outdoor dining from March through November.
Moran said he talked with people about the idea while running for office. He said thousands of city residents were in agreement with expanding outdoor dining.
“We all have different levels of risk that we are willing to put ourselves into,” he said. “There are other folks who are well along in life, who have reached a point where they recognize the risks that COVID presents to them as an individual, and they choose not to have reentered our economy. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of those people.”
Meanwhile, it wasn’t uncommon to drive down Broadway last summer and see sidewalks filled with maskless pedestrians.
Moran said it’s both “morally and ethically appropriate” to help out local restaurants that have been impacted by the pandemic.
“If you take equine sports out of the mix, we’re known because of our small businesses and the quaintness and the uniqueness of our restaurants and boutiques,” Moran said Monday. “It is who we are.”
On top of that, the restaurants are locally owned, he said.
“It’s not Olive Garden,” he said. “It’s not P.F. Chang’s. The money that’s made by these businesses doesn’t get shipped someplace [outside the area.] It stays in Saratoga Springs for the most part.”
Moran said the proposal won’t benefit his business as a minority owner of Druthers Brewing Co. on Broadway because it already has outdoor seating built into its business model.
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said he’s in favor of the commissioner’s plan.
“The reality is those outdoor patios saved a number of restaurants over the last two years, particularly when they were limited in terms of how many people they could have inside,” Shimkus said.
The chamber official also noted that many restaurants have continued to spread out indoor seating, to provide their customers with an increased level of comfort.
“I think that sort of mentality is going to be with us for a while,” Shimkus said of social distancing. “So having outdoor options where people feel safe is really important going forward. And the more permanent, the better.”
But Shimkus cautioned Saratoga Springs officials in taking a one-size-fits-all approach to outdoor dining.
“The city needs to work with the neighbors on each street individually because they have different means and different abilities to service outdoor areas without conflicting with neighbors,” he said, noting that Caffe Lena, and a non-restaurant, Coles Woodwind on Phila Street, had legitimate challenges associated with outdoor dining in 2020.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.