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Connecticut outdoor dining to be extended for another 13 months as pandemic subsides

Hartford Courant logoHartford Courant 3/16/2022 Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant
Restaurants along Pratt Street have tables set up for outdoor dining Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Hartford. © Kassi Jackson/Hartford Courant/TNS Restaurants along Pratt Street have tables set up for outdoor dining Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Hartford.

Though the coronavirus is waning, state legislators voted Wednesday to extend outdoor dining at restaurants for another 13 months.

The pandemic has been particularly hard on restaurants with price hikes, staff shortages, consumer fears and indoor dining limits leading more than 600 to close permanently and others to shut down temporarily during the winter months.

The bipartisan measure passed by 121-21 in the state House of Representatives as 21 conservative Republicans opposed the bill, partly because of concerns about the state’s potential infringement on local zoning regulations.

The bill was sent to the Senate, which could vote as soon as next week.

Since the provision is scheduled to expire at the end of March, lawmakers are running out of time to vote on the issue. Outdoor dining has proved crucial to many restaurants, providing business at a time when many diners were afraid to eat indoors.

“Our restaurants need to have a sense of what they can do so that our businesses can have certainty,’’ Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vehy, a Fairfield Democrat, told her colleagues.

The bill was supported by the Connecticut Restaurant Association and two influential lobbying groups at the Capitol: the 110-member Council of Small Towns and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

“Municipalities have been working hard to support restaurants, retail stores, and other local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic,’' said Betsy Gara, executive director for the small towns. “COST also recognizes that assisting restaurants and other local businesses recover from financial losses stemming from the pandemic is crucial to state and local economic recovery efforts.’'

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor dining expanded exponentially in 2020 as cash-strapped restaurants found creative ways to place tables on sidewalks or the grass outside the restaurant for the first time. Some communities allowed space to be taken from the street as restaurants essentially pushed out their front doors because diners wanted to avoid eating inside.

The latest extension, which initially began with an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont, would last until April 30, 2023.

State Rep. Joe Zullo, an East Haven Republican who is the ranking member of the planning and development committee, said he understands the concerns that the state could be infringing on local zoning powers.

“We’re not quite to the ninth inning, but maybe we’re at the seventh-inning stretch,’' he said of the pandemic. “We have some restaurants that are still struggling. ... For me, the benefit outweighs the cost. Consumers have gotten used to the concept of outdoor dining. ... It addresses a critical part of our economy.’'

Rep. Michael Winkler, a Vernon Democrat, said he voted in favor despite having concerns.

“I do believe the restaurant industry needs this break,’' Winkler said. “No municipality can opt-out. Each has to comply.’'

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com

©2022 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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