A bill encouraging post-pandemic outdoor dining in Rhode Island is served up to governor

Dining outdoors at an Atwells Avenue restaurant on Federal Hill in Providence following the COVID-19 shutdown in May, 2021. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

WPRO News and The Associated Press

A bill that would set standards for cities and towns to regulate outdoor dining has landed on Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee’s desk, and he said Friday that he will sign it.

The bill approved by the General Assembly on Thursday would let communities limit the capacity of outdoor dining but would not allow municipalities to ban outdoor dining altogether.

The bill’s sponsors — Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee and Sen. Alana DiMario — said the expansion of outdoor dining during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic helped countless restaurants survive during a time when people couldn’t gather in crowded eateries without risking their health.

“Without outdoor dining, our diverse and world-renowned restaurant scene would look far different today and the state would have missed out on the millions of tax dollars that our tourism and hospitality industries generate yearly,” McEntee, a Democrat, said in a written statement.

The bill would let municipalities adopt ordinances that limit outdoor dining on public property, limit the capacity of outdoor dining, and require barriers for outdoor dining areas that border parking lots or roadways.

But the legislation would not let municipalities prohibit outdoor dining, limit the time of year when outdoor dining may be offered, or restrict the hours of outdoor dining operations inconsistent with the establishment’s existing license.

It would also prohibit cities and towns from requiring new parking capacity standards on a food service establishment for an outdoor dining area.

“Outdoor dining allowed so many of our beloved restaurants to stay open during the economic uncertainties we have faced over the past few years and it brought our communities back together after facing a terrifying public health crisis,” said DiMario, a Democrat.

The proposal has the backing of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

“This legislation holds immense promise for bolstering the economic recovery of the hospitality industry,” league Associate Director David Bodah testified last week. “The league unequivocally stands in favor of this bill.”

Heather Singleton, interim CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association also welcomed the legislation, saying businesses have come to rely on outdoor dining for much-needed added revenue.

“Rhode Island’s restaurants are still in recovery mode, facing staff shortages, rising prices and persistent supply-chain issues,” she said. “This law provides dependability and stability of a much-needed revenue stream for restaurants all over the state.”

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