By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
MARGATE – The city is planning to relax its zoning requirements to allow restaurants to provide al fresco dining this summer as soon as Gov. Phil Murphy allows restaurants to reopen. Action will be taken at the Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday, May 21 to provide relief of existing zoning codes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Commissioner John Amodeo, the city will allow existing restaurants to provide seating in their parking lots and in public rights of way.
Margate Business Association President Ed Berger said he has attended several conference calls with city officials to discuss how merchants and restaurants can make the most of the summer.
He said as COVID-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, the city would consider allowing retailers to have sidewalk sales, erect tents or share spaces with other business owners who have room to expand outside their stores.
“The city is making a concerted effort to relax regulations where they can so our businesses can begin to recover,” Berger said.
Their action would “level the playing field” for small business owners who cannot allow customers to browse their inventory and are competing with big box stores who are selling the same products.
“We are not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm. It’s just that the smaller boats are sinking,” he said.
Berger said small business owners are better equipped than big box stores to establish protocols to make sure their employees and customers are safe.
According to the outdoor seating resolution, restaurant owners would be required to obtain a temporary zoning permit and provide proof of insurance indemnifying the city from liability.
The zoning officer, chief of police, fire chief and construction code official will review the permit applications to ensure public safety. Fees would be waived. The permit would be valid until Dec. 31. However, the restaurants that have liquor licenses would be required to obtain clearance from the NJ Division of Alcohol Beverage Control to serve beverages outdoors.
“To help the restaurants recover from this long shutdown, we will be relaxing the requirement for onsite parking. They will be able to expand seating to as much as 70% of what’s normal and help bring their people back to work,” Amodeo said.
As much as many residents and visitors are looking forward to dining out at a restaurant, he is expecting there will be some backlash from residents concerned about an already existing shortage of parking spaces.
“Those who are concerned about the lack of parking are just going to have to figure it out,” he said. “We are all in this together and we have to support our business community. They are the ones who support and feed our residents.”
Amodeo said about 30 parking spaces have been restored along Amherst Avenue where the bulkhead is being replaced and more will be restored as soon as the bulkhead project is completed.
It is likely Gov. Phil Murphy will soon sign an executive order allowing restaurants to re-open with a limited capacity that adheres to social distancing recommendations and allow outdoor dining.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Angela Diamantis of Sophia’s restaurant on Amherst Avenue about the outdoor dining relief. “It will compensate for the loss of indoor seating.”
Diamantis said the restaurant was already considering ways to have al fresco dining in the parking spaces next to the restaurant. The adjacent parking lot would still be used for parking, she said.
“We were talking about beautifying the area with plants to make it look like an outdoor café,” she said. “Imagine how pretty it would be with umbrellas. It would give it a very European vibe.”
Like Sophia’s, Steve & Cookies By the Bay restaurant is currently offering meals with curbside pickup.
Restaurant owner Cookie Till said she would set up tables in the driveway next to the Oyster Bar but would reserve the rear lot for parking.
“We’re working on it now,” she said Wednesday morning. “As soon as we get the word we can open, we’ll be serving al fresco.”
Diamantis said Sophia’s never closed and was able to keep some key personnel employed through the pandemic. Nevertheless, business dropped considerably.
“We really don’t know what to expect so it is scary. But we are planning ahead and trying to be pro-active. Once the governor allows us to open, we will be limited in capacity, so extending to the outdoors will be marvelous.”
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