Westport officials mull future of outdoor dining as COVID restrictions wane

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Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville's in Westport.

Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville's in Westport.

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WESTPORT — Are the town’s restaurants biting off more than they can chew?

That’s the concern of the local health director, who is worried about the impact outdoor restaurant seating added during the COVID-19 pandemic will have on restaurants now that restrictions on indoor dining have largely been lifted.

Westport Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper sent a letter on June 23 to Planning and Zoning Deputy Director Michelle Perillie detailing potential safety concerns associated with keeping outdoor dining at pandemic levels.

“During Connecticut’s COVID-19 pandemic efforts to keep restaurants viable, outdoor dining was considered as a way for restaurants to maintain some acceptable level of service, because of the Governor’s Directive that only 50% of the indoor capacity could be used,” Cooper wrote. “The WWHD supported the creation of safer outdoor dining areas, which basically gave food service facilities a way to get back closer to their maximum approved seating capacity — 50% inside and 50% outside.”

But now that most COVID restrictions have been lifted, Cooper said, restaurants can return to 100 percent capacity indoors.

“The concern is, with indoor dining back full force, are we going to be overtaxing the restaurant’s ability to serve food,” Cooper said on Thursday.

For example, he said, a restaurant might be equipped to handle 100 seats. During the pandemic, he said, they would have had to reduce to 50 seats inside, but added 50 seats outside to compensate. Now they can go back to 100 seats inside, Cooper said, but they might want to keep those additional 50 seats outside. However, they might not be equipped to handle that extra seating.

If restaurants have to scramble to meet the increased demand, Cooper said, they could lose sight of safety concerns, leading to dangerous conditions and possibly even foodborne illness outbreaks.

“You can’t let your (health inspection) scores go down,” he said. “We can’t see you being unsafe.”

In his email to Perillie, Cooper asked that the health department have an opportunity to review all outdoor dining proposals to evaluate the facilities capacity to handle additional seating safely. Cooper’s request was reviewed Wednesday during a virtual meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission’s revision subcommittee.

Many of those present, including some local restaurant owners, wanted to hang on to some outdoor dining. Howard Bass, whose wife, Stacy Bass, is one of the owners of Manna Toast on Church Lane, said he hoped outdoor dining could stay.

“New York has opened up so much street space to outdoor dining and I think it offers incredible vibrancy,” he said.

However, some pointed out that, during COVID, there were some restaurants that were able to open their outdoor dining on town streets, some of which were closed for that purpose. Other businesses weren’t afforded that luxury.

RTM member Sal Liccione, who serves the town’s ninth district, said after the meeting that he would prefer to see a more level playing field.

“What’s good for one should be good for all,” he said.

Steven Carpentieri, owner of Dunville’s Restaurant on Saugatuck Avenue, said the purpose of allowing outdoor dining was to help compensate for the pandemic-mandated reduction in indoor capacity — not to allow for de facto expansion of some restaurants. He said some facilities, such as his own, couldn’t expand onto town property.

Instead, Carpentieri said, he closed part of his parking lot to add tables. He said he understands wanting to keep outdoor dining, but wants it to be done in a way that’s safe and fair.

“You need to create a better platforrm so everyone can participate,” he said.