Letter: Call for Investigation of Outdoor Seating Application Process

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The following letter is by Ginger Brown, Executive Director of JP Centre/South Main Streets, on behalf of the Board of Directors, JP Centre/South Main Streets:

JP Centre/South Main Streets urges the city of Boston to review their application process for outdoor seating for restaurants and examine how the process perpetuates racial disparities and inequities for small business owners. This includes both the current temporary 2022 Temporary Outdoor Dining Program and the permanent application process.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, our city rallied quickly to help our small businesses pivot and survive. In particular, the outdoor seating application process was simplified and expedited, and city employees went above and beyond to assist applicants and mediate requirements as needed. More restaurants than ever, particularly those owned by people of color, were able to provide outdoor seating, and the city saw revived business for our food establishments, as well as real enjoyment from customers.

However we must now question whether it is fair to return to an application process that magnifies racial disparities, inequity, and systemic racism.

The 2022 Temporary Outdoor Dining Program stipulates the following:

  • Required insurance: Workers’ Compensation (of $500,000 per accident and per employee, including disease); Commercial General Liability with coverage no less than $1,000,000 per occurrence and $2,000,000 annual aggregate, per location; Automobile Liability (Any Auto/Hired/Non-owned) for $1,000,000 combined single limit per accident; and Umbrella Liability excess of Commercial General Liability, Employer’s Liability, and Auto Liability for $1,000,000 each occurrence or higher limits on individual policies.

  • Not permitted for on-street barriers: planters, ropes, chains, stanchions, pallets, privately fabricated barriers, and/or metal crowd control fencing. All barriers shall be either concrete jersey barriers or commercially available water-filled barriers

The insurance requirements are expensive and, in some cases, unnecessary (not every business purchases auto insurance). The change in allowed barriers means that businesses will have to track down and purchase or rent the required barriers. This is a cost of $200-$700 per barrier, with a minimum of eight (8) barriers per cafe zone. Not only that, but previous barriers that do not meet these requirements are now a lost investment.

The permanent application and implementation process (prior to the pandemic) included:

  • ground plan and elevation drawings by a Massachusetts Professional Engineer or Professional Land Surveyor at the business owners’ expense;

  • submission of plans to and approval from ten different city departments;

  • a professional License, Maintenance, and Indemnification agreement at the business owners’ expense;

  • extensive community outreach, documentation, and insurance;

  • multiple hearings with city agencies,

  • and annual license fees.

Only the privileged, wealthy, and experienced could navigate this system on a yearly basis. Small business owners do not have the time, money, or resources to apply. This process does not even account for possible language barriers, time lost, the costs of installing the fixtures, maintenance, and winter storage.

The last two years have been a fair trial of the benefits of increased outdoor seating, and the ability of our city to facilitate that. The 2020-2021 streamlined application process allowed small businesses to survive and thrive, enliven their neighborhood district, and keep their local economy going.

However, endorsing the 2022 guidelines and the former application process would be akin to acknowledging that disparity and inequity were simply “standard practice” for our city. Our small businesses would once again be victims.

We acknowledge that the revision of this process will need to incorporate appropriate safety measures, accessibility, and observe Massachusetts’ state laws regarding outdoor seating. However the lessons of the pandemic can serve as a starting point for revising the current and permanent application requirements to bring down the costs for small business owners; streamline approvals, documentation, and permitting; and keep outdoor seating for our small restaurants that have worked tirelessly to serve and feed their close-knit communities. These businesses deserve their city’s support.

Thank you,

Ginger Brown, Executive Director

On behalf of the Board of Directors, JP Centre/South Main Streets