SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The City Council has approved a permit system that will allow the city's restaurants to expand their outdoor seating as part of its response to business disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Restaurants were shut down entirely for on-site dining from mid-March until two weeks ago, when outdoor dining was allowed with the Capital Region in Phase 2 of recovery. On Wednesday, the region entered Phase 3 that allows limited-capacity indoor dining -- but many observers expect patrons to prefer outdoor dining for now.
The city's move will allow restaurants, many of which depend on summer tourist business, to place tables on city sidewalks and other public locations, letting them expand their outdoor capacity. The permits, being managed through the city's Department of Accounts, will have no cost.
"Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, we'd like to help our local eating and drinking establishments to start opening up by providing them with temporary outdoor seating," said Accounts Commissioner John P. Franck.
Several restaurant owners spoke at a public hearing held by Zoom conference prior to the City Council's unanimous vote.
“Our downtown and our Saratoga Springs community as a whole is desperate, particularly in the restaurant industry, to get reopened," said Nancy Bambara, vice president of DZ Restaurants, which owns Bica Bistro, Forno Bistro and Chianti il Ristorante.
"I think by adding a handful of seats outside on the sidewalk will allow everyone in our industry to hopefully survive. I’m not so worried about the next couple of months, but certainly the next 12 months are going to be challenging,” Bambara said.
Other communities have implemented or are considering similar measures, including closing streets in places that don't have the expansive sidewalks Saratoga Springs has along Broadway. Starting Thursday, for example, Ballston Spa will be closing a block of Front Street during the dinner hours, Thursdays through Saturdays.
"Any business can submit a plan using the area around where their business is located," said Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton. "Look at it creatively, and we can get back to them on a case-by-case basis. They are not limited to just the sidewalk expansion." Space for pedestrians would be addressed in the permit, as there are no specific requirements.
"This whole COVID thing has done a lot of people a lot of damage," said Public Works Commissioner Anthony "Skip" Scirocco, citing the lack of visitor activity on Broadway.
Franck proposed the permit amendment allowing expanded outdoor seating, since his department controls the permits held by eating and drinking establishments.
The permits will require that areas being used be kept clean, and tables and chairs removed each night at the close of business. The permits will expire on Sept. 7, Labor Day -- roughly the end of the summer tourism season. The time period could be extended, city officials said.
In a normal year, that would also mark the end of the Saratoga Race Course meet, which daily attracts tens of thousands of thoroughbred racing fans. But this year, racing is expected to take place without fans to avoid drawing the kinds of crowds that could spread the virus.