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Baltimore to extend COVID street closures and parklets for outdoor dining

Mayor Brandon Scott announced that outdoor restaurant dining programs that were started a year ago to help the food industry will be extended.

Makeshift “parklets” popped up in many Baltimore parking spaces last year as local restaurants looked to expand their outdoor dining spaces. But what were envisioned originally as temporary structures could have staying power.

Speaking outside such a parklet at Marie Louise Bistro in Mt. Vernon, Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday that the city would extend both its dining street closure and outdoor seating relief programs. Both projects, a partnership between the city and Downtown Partnership, began last year in response to the pandemic’s closure of indoor dining at restaurants.

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“The outdoor dining street closure and outdoor seating relief programs are a great way for Baltimore restaurants to expand their capacity outdoors while offering a safe, enjoyable dining experience for patrons,” Scott said. “These programs have been great for our businesses and communities. And I’m glad to see them continuing growth.”

Public health experts say the risk of COVID-19 transmission is much lower outside than in indoor spaces. The city has placed limits on or banned indoor dining on and off during the pandemic.

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News of the programs’ extensions comes a week after Scott lifted capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining in restaurants in the city.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, left, speaks with a reporter after Wednesday's news conference on outdoor dining. Also at the conference were Councilman Eric Costello, right, and Shelonda Stokes, rear, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, left, speaks with a reporter after Wednesday's news conference on outdoor dining. Also at the conference were Councilman Eric Costello, right, and Shelonda Stokes, rear, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Previously, Baltimore imposed some of the strictest limits in Maryland, requiring restaurants to operate at 50% capacity for indoor dining and 75% capacity outdoors even after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ended capacity limits at restaurants.

In Baltimore, patrons inside restaurants still will be required to be seated, but standing patrons can be served outdoors.

Councilman Eric T. Costello, a frequent advocate of area restaurants, praised the extension of the outside programs.

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“I can’t over stress the importance of this program,” said Costello, saying it had helped restaurants power through the pandemic restrictions on indoor dining. “But more importantly, it positions our restaurants and our small business community to truly drive the economic recovery that we’re going to see in Baltimore City.”

Such permits are particularly useful in historic communities such as Mt. Vernon where businesses may lack the sidewalk space or patios to seat customers outside, said Shelonda Stokes, president of Downtown Partnership.

The city has worked with neighborhood organizations to pay for and erect parklets throughout Baltimore. For example, the Charles Street Development Corp. created numerous parklets like the one outside of Marie Louise Bistro. The group also is co-sponsoring the Promenade this Saturday, which will close Charles Street to traffic from Saratoga Street to North Avenue.

One concern for parklet designers is how to create safe barriers against traffic. Last year saw several instances of cars driving into outdoor dining areas set up outside Blue Agave and SoBo Cafe in Federal Hill. Scott said city leaders are working on a complete streets manual to “figure out ways to build and construct our streets that make everyone safer” in both the near and long-term future.

On Charles Street, where cars sometimes zip past exceeding the speed limit, Charles Street Development Corp. has used heavy duty construction barriers to block off the dining parklets, said the group’s executive director, Kristin Speaker. The cost of building such a parklet is about $4,000 to $5,000.

Under the programs, restaurant owners can apply online for outdoor sidewalk dining and for street and parking lane closures. The city’s department of housing and community development oversees permits for sidewalk dining, while permits for lane closures and parking spaces are granted by the city’s department of transportation. The city is waiving fees for such permits during the pandemic, Costello said.

Spirits of Mt. Vernon owner Victoria Schassler said being able to serve people in seats outside her shop on the corner of Charles and W. Read streets had made the difference between staying in business and possibly shuttering for good during the pandemic.

“This has been my little baby for the past 16 years,” she said, walking into her shop, where a 160-pound mastiff snoozed behind the counter.

Such outdoor eating setups also have the benefit of attracting people to the neighborhood and establishing a sense of community, something that was sorely lacking in the early days of the pandemic, Schassler said.

Mt. Vernon, a previously bustling area, “was like a ghost town,” she said.

While retail alcohol sales soared during the pandemic, Schassler said her shop, which previously held wine tastings every Friday evening, suffered from the loss of corporate business as area offices switched to telework. She credited neighbors in the area with helping her stay afloat throughout the past year.

While some business owners had dinged Scott in the past for what they viewed as overly cautious restrictions, Schassler said she was glad for the mayor’s more “conservative” approach. During a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, she said, “being conservative is not a bad thing.”

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