By Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
New rules for dining establishments issued by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development Wednesday will allow restaurants to seat customers for dining outdoors beginning Friday, May 22, but they must follow protocols aimed to encourage physical distancing among other guidelines.
Customers must make reservations or call ahead before going out to eat, and tables need to be at least 10 feet apart.
The guidelines also cap the total number of customers a restaurant can serve at one time. The number of diners is limited to 50 or the restaurant’s maximum licensed capacity — whichever is less.
At each individual table, the number of people is capped at 10. Diners at each table can only be from two different households.
The guidance also aims to limit the shared surfaces that multiple people might touch.
Restaurants need to provide customers with disposable, rather than reusable, menus. They’re encouraged to provide single-use condiment packets, or they have to clean and sanitize reusable containers between customers. As with other sectors, cashless and touch-less transactions are preferred.
The guidance also encourages ordering remotely, either by phone or online. Takeout-style service is recommended, while table service is discouraged.
Restaurants must keep a log of all customers and their contact information for 30 days, in case the state needs to trace the contacts of someone confirmed to have the virus. This mirrors a requirement the state put in place for lodging last week.
Restaurants were ordered to close on March 16, as the state began to shut down when the coronavirus pandemic reached Vermont.
The coronavirus crisis has hit the restaurant industry particularly hard. As places where people gather, it’s challenging for dining establishments to meet the physical distancing recommendations to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Government economic relief programs so far have been ill-suited to the industry, though a proposal Gov. Phil Scott outlined Wednesday, May 20, aims to offer some support for the hospitality industry.
Local business leaders have been pushing the state to allow the industry to open for outdoor dining. The Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce urged the state to let establishments open for outdoor service earlier this month, as well as offer guidance to municipalities on how they can make it easier for restaurants that don’t have outside seating to resume business. The ACCD did not include advice for towns and cities in the rules issued Wednesday.
At Scott’s three-times-a-week press conference Wednesday, Department of Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein said that while the state works on long-term economic transformation, some short-term changes may be made as well that would support businesses like restaurants and shops.
“We know that our communities may look different,” Goldstein said. “Perhaps there are streets that we close to traffic so restaurants can expand outdoor seating and perhaps better utilization and repurposing of vacant lots, so that we could have more retail sales.”
Scott said that officials will provide more details about outdoor restaurant dining on Friday.
Photo above by Glenn Russell/VTDigger. A passer-by looks at a sign announcing that El Cortijo restaurant is closed in Burlington on Monday, March 16, 2020.