Portland extends outdoor dining allowance to early May

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In its first meeting of 2021, the Portland City Council on Monday unanimously approved a second extension of an emergency order that will allow restaurants to provide outdoor dining in public spaces through May 10.

Permits for outdoor dining on sidewalks and streets in response to the coronavirus pandemic had been scheduled to expire Jan. 4, after being extended from an initial expiration date of Nov. 1, 2020.

City Manager Jon Jennings said one of the deciding factors in the extension was how well city public works staff was able to handle the December storm that left 17 inches of snow in Portland. While it was challenging for plows to move around the restaurant “parklets,” he said if workers could manage during that snowstorm, he believes they can handle the rest of winter.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, middle row left, speaks during a remote meeting of the City Council on Monday where councilors unanimously approved extending the city’s emergency proclamation for COVID-19, which will allow restaurants to continue outdoor dining until May. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

While some businesses will opt not to continuing outdoor dining, Jennings said it is important for the city to do everything it can to help businesses navigate these challenging times.

He said by setting the extension into the spring, businesses will be able to plan their budgets and staffing with more certainty.

Jennings also said the past 10 months have been a learning experience for the city, and officials are continuing to learn. While last summer the city closed several streets in the Old Port to accommodate outdoor dining and sales, he indicated the city may look at other methods of business assistance once the weather permits more outdoor activity.

“I think we will be recommending different things to accommodate outdoor dining,” Jennings said.

The council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee was slated to continue discussions of outdoor business activity beyond April on Tuesday.  

Mayor Kate Snyder noted the extension was made in the context of increasing COVID-19 cases in Maine. She cautioned residents to continue to adhere to safe practices, including wearing masks and social distancing.

“It’s only January,” Snyder said, “and we’ve got the whole winter ahead of us.”

Councilor April Fournier, who revealed on Facebook Monday that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantined with her family, was absent from the meeting.

Racial equity panel gets more time 

The Portland City Council on Monday extended the Racial Equity Steering Committee’s deadline from the end of January to the end of April.

The committee, which was formed last summer following protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has been meeting weekly since the fall. It was scheduled to conclude its work and report recommendations to the council this month.

The 13-member panel sought the extension after its organization took longer than expected and in light of the scope of work it faced.

The council approved the extension unanimously, with Councilor April Fournier absent.

Councilors Belinda Ray and Nick Mavodones said they would like the committee to produce an interim report, especially if the group plans to make recommendations with budget implications. The council is slated to begin its fiscal year 2022 budget deliberations before the committee’s new April deadline.

Councilor Pious Ali, who co-chairs the committee, said it could have a presentation ready for the council’s second meeting in February.

Samaa Abdurraqib, the committee’s facilitator, said the panel is in a good place to have early recommendations and ideas that may have a fiscal impact.

While Abdurraqib would not rule out the possibility of seeking another extension, she also said the group believes the one-time extension should be sufficient. They hope to have their final meeting on April 1, and have a report ready for the council by April 21.

The committee recently discussed plans to recommend the city create a permanent racial equity office with at least a director and potentially staff.

— Colin Ellis