STONEHAM - Though willing to consider the concept. Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan and Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill both advocated against immediately allowing restaurants to occupy public property under the state's Phase II reopening plan.
During a meeting on Tuesday night, Sheehan advised the board that under Mass. Governor Charles Baker's economic reopening plan, local restaurants can now be granted emergency licenses for use of public sidewalks, streets, and parks as outdoor dining areas.
Sheehan, who explained his office is mulling the possibility of letting Stoneham Square merchants use sidewalks and the Town Common, also explained that mom and pop establishments will be granted temporary relief from local prohibitions against placing signs, banners, and product displays on public property.
"You could hypothetically have a restaurant wanting to put out a couple of chairs on the sidewalk. A second aspect [of the emergency licenses] would around the authority to open up additional public spaces for restaurants that may not have space [on their own lots]," Sheehan explained.
Obviously, in and around the common is one area we're looking at, where we could issue a temporary license agreement" he added.
Despite the initial talks, the Town Hall CEO insisted the community would have to work out a series of potential issues around the alternative outdoor dining area arrangements before issuing temporary permits.
According to Sheehan, besides making sure the town does not run afoul of federal American Disability Act (ADA) statutes, he and other local officials will also need to figure out what liabilities, if any, the town would face in extending licenses for use of public property by private ventures.
"We should probably have a separate conversation around [the use of public spaces], if the board would like to approve an agreement for folks who want to put something on a right-of-way…We're not fully prepared [to endorse that option yet]," the town administrator explained.
"I have series concerns about ADA compliance," MacNeill later agreed. "We've had hat issue in the past. My other concern is with umbrellas and the liability around those blowing into the street."
The idea of letting businesses utilize public spaces has proved controversial in the past, especially when those conversations have revolved around the Town Common.
In fact, just this past winter, the Select Board found themselves debating whether to enact tougher restrictions around the use of the downtown green space after a three-member study committee unveiled a draft set of land use regulations that would govern the Town Common and all other community parks.
Last summer, Sheehan and others advocated for codifying use regulations around the Town Common after a a local non-profit asked to host a "Taste of Stoneham" event that would feature tasting menus from a variety of Stoneham Square restauranteurs.
According to Sheehan, though the gathering was a great way to promote the downtown area, the event technically violated a variety of local bylaws, including regulations that prohibited the use of open-flames at public parks and forbid the use of public resources for promotions benefitting for-profit ventures.
The Select Board, which in the coming days will be issuing emergency licenses for outdoor dining areas on private land, ultimately agreed to temporarily shelve the discourse around restaurants' potential use of public property for the time being.
The town officials did however consent to implement emergency exclusions of local regulations in light of the COVID-19 crisis' impact on the local economy. As an example, the Select Board voted unanimously in favor of waiving existing bans on placing A-frame signs and banners on sidewalks and streets outside of Stoneham's central business district.
Likewise, Sheehan explained that he will entertain requests from area merchants to place outdoor product displays on public property, so long as those sales and promotional materials are not causing ADA issues or serious conflicts with pedestrians.
Beginning on Monday, retail stores owners in Stoneham were allowed to begin accepting customers into their establishments after being previously limited to curb-side service sales.
Under the first-part of the state's Phase II reopening order, uch businesses may not exceed 40 percent of its occupancy permit limits (which equates to roughly 8 people for each 1,000 square feet of space). Professional and personal service establishments may also resume operations, so long as they don't require close contact with customers. Massage parlors, nail salons, and tattoo and body piercing parlors are amongst those businesses not allowed to reopen.
Funeral homes may also begin resume wake and memorial services for customers, but again at a reduced 40 percent capacity.
Public libraries, day camps, and hotels and short-term lodging facilities may also reopen with restrictions.
Gyms, indoor sports facilities, concert venues, casinos, museums and movie theaters, and all colleges and universities must all remain closed under Phase 3 and 4 of the state's reopening plans. Cities and towns are also forbidden from permitting road races, summer concert series, feasts and festivals, and other public events that will attract more than 10 people.