City, Coronavirus, News

Outdoor dining to resume in time for Dine Out Boston

Outdoor dining will resume in Boston Monday, 10 days earlier than originally planned, allowing local restaurants to offer increased seating before the end of Dine Out Boston — a biannual event featuring fixed-price lunch and dinner menus at more than 100 of the city’s restaurants.

greco restaurant on newbury street in boston
Patrons dine outside at GreCo on Newbury Street. Boston restaurants can reopen outdoor dining Monday instead of April 1 due to anticipated warm weather. SOPHIA FLISSLER/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Restaurants were originally slated to reopen their outdoor spaces April 1, but Mayor Marty Walsh announced Friday the date would be moved up due to a forecast for warmer weather.

Previously, restaurants needed state and city authorization to have an open outdoor dining area, said Steve Clark, vice president of government affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, but the state government has since waived their role in approval.

More than 430 restaurants have applied to the City’s 2021 Outdoor Dining Pilot Program — which offers a streamlined permitting process and the option to expand patio seating — since applications went live Dec. 10.

So far, more than 200 restaurants have been approved.

Boston’s outdoor dining restrictions came as COVID-19 cases rose and temperatures fell in December.

The change “led business to drop like a stone” at the end of 2020, Clark said.

While dining outdoors is safer than indoors, the warmer weather could present its own challenges because guests are more likely to spend longer periods unmasked and in close contact during meals, said Eleanor Murray, associate professor of epidemiology at Boston University.

“The more times you spend in a setting with potential exposures, the more likely you are to get infected,” she said. “For diners, the fact that people may feel like lingering in warm weather could actually be more risky for them.”

Alternatively, she said, it could be more safe for employees who would interact with a fewer number of customers if their meals take longer.

“From an employee perspective, actually having people kind of linger over their meals is a little bit of a safer situation,” she said.

Around 20 percent of the state’s restaurant industry has not reopened since the pandemic began, Clark said.

But, Murray said Dine Out Boston takes place around the same time period when experts worry a rise in national COVID-19 cases may be brought on by new variants of the virus.

“If the variants do start taking off here in the U.S., it will be around the end of March, early April, which is exactly when Dine Out Boston would be happening,” she said. “It is a cause for concern.”

Clark said with vaccinations on the rise and restrictions getting lifted, many are feeling optimistic, but it’s important to remember lifted restrictions “only bring us back to where we were in October.”

Murray said the state “is not really doing a stellar job” with vaccine distribution, and the tourist attraction of the outdoor-dining event may increase risk of disease spread across state lines.

“We’re certainly not at the level where we should feel comfortable relying on vaccination to protect us from having large events like Dine Out Boston,” she said.

For restaurants still dealing with limited seating, such as 730 Tavern, Kitchen & Patio in Cambridge, the shift outdoors could make a significant difference for business.

“I can’t wait to get the good word and get the people outside to open the windows, so the restaurant can accommodate more guests,” said Davidson Bettero, general manager and one of the owners.

The restaurant, which opened in 2017, is currently participating in Dine Out. Bettero said 730 Tavern, Kitchen & Patio has had positive experiences participating in the program.

“It’s always been great to us here,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a couple years now, three plus years, and it’s always good, always helps.”

Lynsey Robbie is the general manager of A Tavola in Winchester, which is also participating in the program. She said Dine Out Boston has helped the restaurant in the past, though she’s unsure whether the same will be true this season due to the pandemic.

“Things are lining up, and we have been getting more people coming to the restaurant the past few weeks,” she said, “so we’re hoping it’ll be a nice little spike in business for us as it usually is.”

Jérôme Bergère, chef and owner of La Voile Brookline, said he’s optimistic the warmer weather will bring people into his restaurant.

“I think people are very tired of staying home, and they’re taking the opportunity to come and try the restaurant with a new deal,” he said.

Bergère said La Voile is utilizing five parking spots in the street to offer additional seating for customers.

Clark said more “creative” outdoor dining areas in restaurants — which came as a necessity to include more seating options — will be one of the positives left from the pandemic.

“You see a lot of operators getting creative with the city, whether it’s alleyways or driveways or even streets that are being diverted to have more outdoor dining opportunities,” he said. “It seems that the dining public wants to come back as well.”


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