STONEHAM - Local restaurants in Stoneham could reopen their doors to in-house customers as soon as this Friday evening after the Select Board adopted a set of emergency licensing regulations around outdoor dining areas.
During a virtual gathering on Tuesday night, Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan explained the elected officials will serve as the final arbiters over whether local eateries can temporarily use private parking lots and other land for the outdoor seating of customers as the state slowly lifts a series of COVID-19 business restrictions.
However, before Sheehan and other Town Hall managers could officially begin reviewing local reopening requests, the Select Board needed to endorse a standard application form and decide how late local merchants would be able to stay open each night.
Ultimately, the elected officials unanimously okayed the draft application and further stipulated that unless advised otherwise, restaurants can stay open as late as is permitted under town bylaws and liquor licensing regulations.
The emergency outdoor licenses will begin being issued on Friday, when the Select Board will hold a virtual meeting at 12:30 p.m. to consider the first batch of applications from area businesses looking to reopen after being shuttered for months due to the COVID-19 crisis.
"We've added a bunch of things to the agenda [in response to the state's economic reopening plan]. But the most important and critical piece is the idea of allowing restaurants to expand their footprints into outdoor spaces," Sheehan explained.
"[Governor Charles Baker's latest] executive order empowers the Select Board to approve outdoor seating under these circumstances up through Nov. 1," he added. "If there is a restaurant that has everything in order — including most importantly approval from any landlords — then the Select Board could begin approving applications as soon as Friday afternoon."
Just last weekend, Baker confirmed the full details around the first stage of the state's Phase II economic reopening plan. Becoming effective on Monday, town officials had to wait for the release of a related executive order — known as COVID-19 Order 30 — to determine how best to regulate the use of private and public properties for restaurant use.
Stoneham's bylaws do allow restaurants to create exterior patios, but those dining areas normally have to be okayed under site plan review and local liquor licensing regulations.
Under the emergency but temporary approvals, which last until Baker's COVID-19 state-of-emergency is lifted or Nov. 1, the regular permitting process will be abandoned, as well as zoning regulations that would normally prohibit such seating areas from being situated within parking lots or land owned by a third-party.
Generally, the Select Board argued local restaurants, already shouldering unprecedented financial strains, deserved as much leeway as possible given the circumstances. As such, the town officials were willing to allow restaurants to stay open as late as possible and to occupy private spaces without much regulation — besides requirements to set-up barriers that separate the dining areas from adjoining sidewalks and streets.
"Obviously, whatever we can do to help out these businesses in light of what they've gone through," said Select Board member George Seibold, who offered to personally help any local business set up permitter fencing or barriers. "When it comes to this, I'm hoping we can be a little more flexible [than normal]. I don't want to disturb any neighbors, but I want to be as lenient as possible."
"We want to get as many businesses up and running as soon as possible," Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill later agreed.
For the time being, the town will not allow private businesses to utilize public spaces like town squares, sidewalks, and parks.
With public health experts saying statistics indicate the state's deadly COVID-19 outbreak is abating, Baker last Monday announced he was likely days away from authorizing the beginning of Phase II under his four-part economic reopening plan.
Under each so-called phase, which will take at least three weeks to fully implement, state authorities are slowly lifting the virtual lockdown on "non-essential" business operations that has now been in effect across Massachusetts since March 23.
Like the Phase I action, which began on May 18, the Phase II rollout will include two stages.
Beginning on Monday, restaurants across the state were allowed to accept dine-in customers, but each party must be seated outdoors at tables that are spaced at least six-feet apart or otherwise separated by a physical barrier.
With advanced reservations being advised by state officials, customer parties will also be limited to a six-person maximum.
Stoneham like many surrounding communities has been scrambling to interpret the economic reopening guidelines and identify ways to help local businesses safely reopen their doors.