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Baltimore officials consider more safety restrictions after car destroys Federal Hill cafe patio

Baltimore officials are in the early stages of discussing new safety restrictions for restaurants that have expanded their outdoor dining operations after a driver crashed into a Federal Hill cafe’s outdoor patio.

Officials with the Department of Transportation will discuss next Tuesday whether restaurants with outdoor seating on sidewalks will be required to install water-filled barriers to protect their dining areas.

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The proposal comes after someone crashed a white Nissan Altima into the patio of Anna Leventis’ SoBo Café –– a recent addition to make up for the lost business caused by the novel coronavirus — and then drove off.

Leventis received a phone call around 1 a.m. Sunday morning with the devastating news. The car destroyed chairs and tables, while knocking down her canopy tent, potted plants and outside décor. The dining area spanned the sidewalk into the parking lane outside the restaurant.

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Baltimore Police said they have not located the vehicle and its driver.

Leventis was among the many restaurateurs to build sidewalk and street seating areas as soon as it was allowed in Baltimore, to offer diners more outdoor seating during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The additional tables were installed to offset the cost of the reduced business because of the pandemic,” Leventis said. “When we were only allowed to do take-out, our profit dropped as low as 30%.”

Since late May, the city’s Department of Transportation has been responsible for approving permits for restaurant owners to serve food to customers outdoors.

When the permit program began, restaurants that occupied a street lane were required to have concrete or water barriers that surrounded their outdoor seating areas, while restaurants that only occupied a sidewalk were required to have two barriers that faced oncoming traffic.

But according to German Vigil, a city transportation department spokesman, restaurateurs serving food on sidewalks soon may be required to install barriers that surround their entire outdoor seating area to keep their permits.

“We plan to work with the restaurant associations to come up with a reasonable date for restaurants to have barriers all around their outside dining areas, but this is what our leadership is looking to implement,” Vigil said.

So far, the department has issued 42 extended outdoor dining permits. Some permits, however, have been issued to main street associations that cover several restaurants under one permit. It’s unclear how many city bars, restaurants or cafes would be affected by the proposed regulation.

Councilman Eric Costello said he has no concern about the safety of dining parklets around the city.

“The accident at SoBo’s is an isolated incident,” Costello said. “The parklets are inspected by [the] Housing [department], by the fire marshal, DOT and other city agencies to ensure compliance.”

Baltimore police could not say whether there have been other incidents in which cars crashed into outdoor dining setups this year. According to the incident report from Sobo Café, the driver crashed through a wooden fence surrounding the parklet at 1:06 a.m. There were no reported injuries.

Leventis said outdoor space like hers is essential for restaurants that are struggling during the pandemic.

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“If restaurants don’t have outdoor seating in this environment," she said, “the alternative is that there will not be many small and independent restaurants –– and neighborhoods are going to become less safe."

Leventis said she plans to rebuild her parklet with added safety measures whether or not it’s mandated by the city.

“We plan to be open all through the winter," Leventis said. “We have outdoor heaters that were working through the permitting process with the fire department to get approved for.”

State Del. Brooke Lierman, whose district is home to SoBo Café, echoed Leventis' sentiment.

“Outdoor dining and having more activity outside, creates safer neighborhoods. More eyes on the street promotes both vibrancy and safety in our neighborhoods, so I hope that we can continue outdoor dining and expand it throughout the city,” Lierman said.

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