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No fire pits: Baltimore to release guidelines for outdoor heaters at restaurants, councilman Costello says

As winter approaches, Baltimore City is issuing guidelines for how restaurants can provide heat for outdoor diners.
As winter approaches, Baltimore City is issuing guidelines for how restaurants can provide heat for outdoor diners. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Outdoor dining has been a boon for area restaurants amid the pandemic, but many are wondering how to keep it going once the temperature dips.

Councilman Eric Costello said Wednesday that the city is launching a program to help restaurants more quickly secure inspections and permits for heaters, and will waive all associated fees.

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“We know how critical it is for restaurants to have additional space considering the indoor restrictions on capacity,” said Costello, who co-chairs Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s small business task force. City eateries can serve only half of their usual indoor capacity and tables must be placed six feet apart to allow social distancing.

Public health experts have said outdoor dining is safer than eating inside because of the lower risk of transmission for the coronavirus, and many local eateries expanded their al fresco dining options when it became legal to do so. But that’s likely to become more difficult in the cold.

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Costello said the new guidelines commit the city to a three day turnaround for inspection and permit approvals, with fees waived for those services. Ordinarily, restaurant owners could wait weeks.

“If you are a restaurant and you are seeking to get a heating solution for outdoors as we go into the colder months, you will able to do that in an expedited fashion,” he said.

Among the city rules: Restaurant owners can use as many heating devices as they want, but they should be placed at least five feet apart from each other as well as from walls, trees, doors and other decor.

The city recommends propane fueled heating devices; electrical ones may be used but not with extension cords, which run afoul of city fire codes. Gasoline or kerosene powered devices and fire pits are prohibited.

Some restaurant owners have already reported facing a backlog when placing orders for heaters, and many shops like Home Depot are already sold out of certain heat lamps in the Baltimore region.

Costello urged restaurants to reach out to the Fire Marshal’s Office for more information.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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