Town Board hears restaurant requests for outdoor dining

Restaurants say Phase 2 opening at 50% was worth it

At last Thursday’s Town Board meeting, the Chamber of Commerce presented requests from restauranteurs who were trying to plan for being open for inside dining for the first time since mid-March.

In preparation of the governor’s Phase 2 opening Memorial Day weekend, restauranteurs wanted to make the most of the Phase 2 restrictions which involved 50% occupancy for both inside and outside dining, while  adhering to safety protocols.

“Our restaurants are seeking ways to promote dining safely while seeking permission for temporary outdoor seating,” said Chamber Executive Director Kaye McHan.

They sought several things: to use 1-3 parking spaces for outdoor dining in B-1, to reduce current on-site parking requirements in B-2 and B-3 to allow outdoor seating areas in those parking spaces, to allow the serving and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the temporary parking space dining, to allow dining on sidewalks and to retain the currently allowed two, take-out parking spaces.

After much discussion between commissioners, town staff and the town attorney, the board OK’d just the retention of take-out parking spaces.

Town Manager Josh Ward said he talked to Bryan Birch with NC DOT to see if using parking spaces on US and NC highways for drinking and dining would be allowed.

Ward said Birch said it would take a lengthy permitting process which would include an encroachment into the rights-of-way permit as well as proof of insurance.
In addition, restauranteurs would have to get a special permit from the Alcohol Law Enforcement Board to serve alcohol in the parking spaces and there would be additional liability issues to contend with.

“That means there would be two hurdles to clear before this may be allowed plus dining in parking spaces would require 30 sq. ft. per person,” said Ward.

Most of Highlands’ sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate tables and chairs nor are they ADA compliant which is why sidewalk dining isn’t allowed.

Town Attorney JK Coward said it’s also an Equal Opportunity issue.

“This might work for some restaurants but not for others and beside the liability, insurance and encroachment issues regarding parking space dining, the town and the restaurants would be liable and could be sued if a vehicle veered into a diner in a parking space,” he said.
In addition, Ward said he had already heard from at least one retailer who said if restaurants were allowed to use the sidewalks for dining, then they wanted to use the sidewalk to expand their store, too.

Commissioners John Dotson and Brian Stiehler said they couldn’t approve such an idea.
“As narrow as our streets are, I am not for putting visitors in parking spaces. The sidewalks aren’t possible either. Besides, it sounds like this is a way to circumnavigate the governor’s order,” said Dotson.

Stiehler said it was important to protect the town and there was too much liability involved.
However, Commissioner Donnie Calloway wanted the restaurants with wide sidewalks to be allowed to discuss the possibility with Town Manager Ward and let him have the final say, since during the pandemic and with the town’s state of emergency still in effect, the town could circumnavigate its own ordinances.

Even though the commissioners saidthat it meant everyone wouldn’t be treated equally, they agreed to let restauranteurs who wanted to use the sidewalk for dining to come to the Town Board with a proposal.

“I don’t think the Town Manager should be burdened with that decision,” said Commissioner Dotson.

There was also some talk about doing away with the two take-out parking spaces that have been allowed during Phase 1, but commissioners agreed to let that stand until Phase 3 starts which will likely be July 3.

Commissioner Amy Patterson said she had heard from many clients that they wanted to continue to support the restaurants through take-out orders, but they weren’t comfortable dining inside, so the take-out parking spaces were needed.

McHan said Mountain Fresh had asked to be allowed to put tables in their parking spaces in their private lot but Attorney Coward said the town would still be liable for any accidents that might occur so that, too, was nixed.

Even though Phase 2 restrictions meant it wasn’t “business as usual” over Memorial Day Weekend, most restaurants said business was good – and absolutely worth it even at 50% occupancy.

“It gave us a chance to ramp up slowly and get used to the new safety procedures without being slammed at 100% which would have happened without the guidelines,” said president and managing director of Old Edwards Hospitality Group Richard Delany. “We opened the Wine Garden, Madison’s and of course Four 65 which has been open for take-out.”

Delany and others said generally, the clientele was understanding and cooperative.

“There were a few grumpy visitors who were not happy about the 50% capacity and having to wait for a seat. But I have come to learn that even in a challenging time like this, there are still sad, unhappy people out there who will find something to complain about even when we are doing our very level best to make things great in a tough situation.”

Many noted, including Mayor Pat Taylor that many visitors this past weekend were not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing.

“It was a little scary actually. There weren’t many masks and not much distancing on sidewalks but we were strict inside all of OEHG,” said Delany.

Co-owner of Mountain Fresh, Jennifer Snead-Smith said business was very steady with a good mix of eat-in and take-out orders, “which is not uncommon for us at this time of year.”
She said she found visitors to be respectful of new safety protocols and keeping ample space between groups.

Blye Hunsinger, owner of Pescados, said his business over the weekend was up compared to last year and even though his Memorial Day lunch was slower than last year being open inside and out at 50% was worth it.

“However, it does take considerable more effort to ensure our team and customers are as safe as they can be while adhering to all the safety protocols,” he said.
Hunsinger said for the most part people, were understanding of the restrictions but he, too, was surprised at the number of people not taking steps to protect themselves and others.

“They weren’t wearing gloves, facemasks, even though they were handling cash, and even touching credit card machines when we have options for customers to make touchless payments,” he said.

Tom Goldacker, co-owner of Highlands Smokehouse echoed other restauranteurs and said this new norm is an adjustment for everyone.

“We did well with 50 percent occupancy and it was worth opening for dining. However, it is an adjustment to adhere to all the rules involved. It takes a bit of extra staff to maintain all the different areas – sanitizing of tables and chairs, knobs and surfaces,” he said. “But overall business was good and most people were patient. It was good to see some of our regulars coming back inside to dine with us. We appreciate all of our patrons.”

Mindy and Joe Green of Wolfgang’s said it was good to be open again.

“It was worth it, even at 50%. We cannot wait to get back to more but having inside take-out was helpful, too.”

Article by Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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