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Rehoboth officials draft permanent outdoor dining regs

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Under the draft proposal, Rehoboth Beach restaurants with 15 feet or more between the front door and the curb will be able to serve on the public sidewalk, but only in front of the business. | PHOTO COURTESY OF REHOBOTH BEACH

Masks are now optional, but whether that means people are ready to sit in a crowded restaurant remains to be seen, and the clock is ticking for restaurant owners in Rehoboth Beach. 

The emergency laws that suspend outdoor dining rules implemented during the pandemic are set to expire on April 1. With no new outdoor dining rules in place by then, restaurants that are now serving patrons on public property will have to cease.

Mayor Stan Mills and Commissioner Patrick Gossett have drafted a broad plan on what permanent dining may look like for Delaware’s top tourist destination. The Rehoboth Beach Commissioners are scheduled to discuss and modify the plan at its March 7 workshop meeting. 

This diagram shows the ideal layout for permanent outdoor dining for restaurants in Rehoboth Beach. | PHOTO COURTESY OF REHOBOTH BEACH

A New Plan for Outdoor Dining

Under the rough-draft proposal, restaurants with 15 feet or more between the front door and the curb will be able to serve on the public sidewalk, but only in front of the business.

Seating areas must be more than five feet to the left and right of the entrance and not exceed eight feet from the building itself. In that space, the restaurants must include three feet for a “service aisle” and a one-foot self-supporting barrier.

Some places bolted their barriers in place; this will no longer be allowed. Similarly, hostess and menu stands will have to be moved inside the restaurants going forward.

The difficulty with current outdoor dining standards is that many of them aren’t sustainable as a full reopening is underway. For example, the town has allowed restaurants to serve in the border areas (essentially on the far-side curb from the establishment). It also converted a significant number of parking spaces to dining spaces under the emergency order.

Using parking spaces for dining cost the city almost a quarter of a million dollars last year, according to Gossett.

The bones of the plan were popular among all of the Rehoboth Beach Commissioners, but some of the details will have to be hammered out before they can begin to draft legislation.

Finer points

The draft details did get some pushback from both some members of the commission and the public. For example, the total outdoor service space under the current proposal would max out at 750 square feet per restaurant. This means any restaurant that already has a patio would have to deduct its patio space before planning to add sidewalk dining.

Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski took issue with that aspect of the proposal, arguing that space restaurants are already using lawfully shouldn’t matter.

“Just because someone’s using their own private space I don’t think they should be [prevented] from using public space,” he said. 

As it stands now, there could be a requirement for restaurants to get separate permissions to serve alcohol. Mills said he hopes to streamline the permitting process so it requires just one permit application.

As the plan stands now, outdoor dining would be limited between April 1 and Oct. 15. Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce, and others suggested it would make more sense to just suspend outdoor dining if necessary to accommodate events. She pointed out that restaurants are already serving outside on nice days in February and March.

“I don’t see anything other than the date that I expect to be a major concern,” she said.

Chrzanowski reminded the commission that the Oct. 15 date, intended to ease parking pressure during the Sea Witch event, was only an issue because of all the parking spaces set aside for dining during Covid restrictions.

He also suggested a $50 and $100 permitting fee to cover staff time and inspections.

Mills suggested that the commission revisit whatever rules they write at the end of each summer to decide whether they should be modified, continued or suspended. Many commissioners objected to this approach. Although some agreed that revisiting it once might be OK, several commenters said it should be made permanent after this summer.

The commission will continue taking public comment ahead of its 9 a.m. Monday, March 7 meeting. Residents who would like to submit comments or speak at the meeting should email City Secretary Ann Womack.

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