Restaurants and bars in Harford County can continue to offer temporary outdoor dining setups through the end of the year, even as the threat of the coronavirus dissipates.
The Harford County Council approved on Tuesday a temporary moratorium that waived provisions of the zoning code that would’ve prohibit bars, breweries, nightclubs and restaurants from setting up outdoor seating spaces on sidewalks or in parking lots.
The legislation was filed at the request of County Executive Barry Glassman and expires Dec. 31, unless additional action is taken. At the end of last May, when Harford County’s COVID-19 positivity rate was on the ascent, Glassman signed an executive order that extended allowances for outdoor dining in the county.
Tommie Harroll, general manager for Conrad’s Seafood Restaurant in Abingdon, said that outdoor seating helped float the eatery during the height of the pandemic, and the continuation of outdoor dining allowances was a good thing.
The restaurant’s patrons are generally split on masking and eating outdoors, he said, and allowing them to maintain tables outside on the sidewalk is better for everyone’s comfort levels.
Harroll did not think the restaurant would lose business if the council had not extended the allowances, but it could have reduced the variety of clientele, which would not seem fair to him.
“If they would have gotten rid of that ordinance, it would have hurt. If customers would like to sit completely outside by the parking lot, I would love to allow it,” Harroll said. “I do not want people to be pushed into a box they do not want to be in.”
County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the intent of extending the waiver is to allow restaurants to recoup some of the money they have lost during the pandemic — and through the flurry of revised orders and guidance issued at the state level. Local jurisdictions have flexibility to take measures like the one approved Tuesday, she said.
“This really was prompted by the impact on local businesses and the concept that outdoor was safer than indoor,” she said. “They are still struggling, and the County Executive is trying to help in what ways he can.”
Nearby Anne Arundel County is seeking to pass emergency legislation to allow outdoor dining to continue there, because those current permissions are tied to the state of emergency decreed by Gov. Larry Hogan and Anne Arundel’s county executive, and would expire once those emergency orders are lifted.
Mumby said the Harford legislation passed Tuesday is not tied to state of emergency orders at the state or county levels. Hogan has not yet lifted Maryland’s emergency order.
The Harford County allowances could be extended again if the virus surges after the end of the year, but Mumby said county officials hope that will not be necessary. Permanent changes to the county’s zoning code related to outdoor dining are not being considered, she said.
The ordinance only covers establishments in the county’s jurisdiction, leaving municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace to decide their own rules, Mumby said.
Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said the city floated the possibility of closing down Park Street to allow businesses to set up outdoor seating, but none of the businesses have taken them up on the offer. He said the city would work with restaurants that want to use outdoor space if they reach out.
Patti Parker, a spokesperson for the Town of Bel Air, said the town has authority to make its own rules on outdoor dining. Last summer, it closed Pennsylvania Avenue to encourage outdoor dining and worked with businesses to accommodate tents where possible.
She would not say whether the town had plans to extend outdoor dining allowances beyond the state of emergency and said there is no need for the town to draft its own outdoor dining legislation currently.
“Currently tent permits allow restaurants to keep those tents up to 30 days after the State of Emergency is lifted by the Governor,” she said. “The Town is taking this one step at a time. We certainly want to help our businesses and restaurants to the best of our abilities.”
The City of Havre de Grace did not respond to a request for comment by 5 p.m. Thursday.