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Anne Arundel to vote on advancing plans to keep outdoor dining past COVID emergency

The race is on to save outdoor dining set up as a lifeline for Anne Arundel County restaurants.

The County Council will vote on whether to introduce competing emergency bills Thursday in a special session, both are aimed at extending the popular dining option before the emergency powers County Executive Steuart Pittman used to approve them expire.

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Pittman has submitted Bill 55-21, which would essentially maintain the extended permissions as they are granted now, most notably that only 50% of a location’s capacity can be used for outside seating.

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, will sponsor Bill 56-21, which would keep the special permissions granted in the pandemic, but remove the capacity restriction. He said businesses would still have to abide by fire codes.|

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“I think the bill I put in is going to give the restaurant’s the maximum flexibility they need to operate in this environment in the summer and the fall as people are adjusting to getting back to normal,” Volke said.

The meeting will be held virtually at 9 a.m. Thursday. It can be watched online on Arundel TV.

Both bills could undergo minor changes before their introduction. Once the bills are introduced the council will return to debate the legislation at the next eligible meeting. Volke said the vote could come as soon as June 7.

Volke and Pittman said they considered these changes after realizing an end to the county emergency order would also end the special permissions. Pittman said Gov. Larry Hogan ending the state order would also end his local orders, so he wants to extend outdoor dining before the state takes action.

Volke said he realized the need to keep the permissions after filing his fourth bill to end the local emergency order and hearing from restaurant owners the unintended consequence.

Both bills will require five votes for passage because they are emergency legislation. Volke would need to convince at least two Democrats to pass his bill while Pittman would only need to convince one Republican. Approving the introduction of a bill does not make it law.

Pittman said he has talked to Volke and thinks a joint solution is possible.

“I’ve spoken with Councilman Volke, and our interests are aligned on what needs to get done,” Pittman said in an email. “I’m confident we’ll end up with a good bill so that we can support our restaurants and move forward with ending the state of emergency.”

Volke agreed that restaurants would benefit either way, but he said his bill provides more flexibility.

Council members will hold the special meeting virtually to meet county law requiring a presence in the county seat of Annapolis. This isn’t a problem when the council meets in its chambers, but the COVID-19 pandemic sent public meetings online across the globe. Anne Arundel County Council continued to meet the location requirement by having a staff member appear from the Annapolis office.

Pittman and Volke intended their bills to appear before the council at the beginning of its in-person budget hearing Thursday at North County High School. It will be the first meeting in person, as a council, since the pandemic sent everyone home and closed county offices and businesses. But since no one from the council would be in Annapolis during that meeting, members can’t introduce legislation.

Volke said he didn’t think there would be much discussion on the legislation concerning introduction. Public hearings, amendments and ultimately final votes on legislation are where the most conflict occurs during the legislative process.

Councilwoman Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, has also put forth a resolution to be introduced Thursday morning. That resolution calls on Pittman to reopen county buildings to the public. Pittman has kept many county buildings closed to the public since the pandemic began.

He has since begun opening some of those buildings back up, such as the move to appointment classes for three senior citizen centers. The Anne Arundel County Council chambers have remained closed. Despite gathering restrictions being rescinded, construction will delay a return to that room until June at the earliest, officials have said.

Haire put forth the resolutions after hearing some constituents’ frustrations dealing with county business over the phones and internet. With appropriate safety guidelines in place, the county should be open and available to work face to face with its residents, she said.

Anne Arundel Administrative Officer Matt Power said Pittman has directed agencies to plan for reopening months ago and the process is underway. Council members will be kept informed as the work continues, but the county plans to communicate with staff and “do this right,” he said.

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