Paul Michaud of Auburn talks to his wife, Ashley, while dining outside at Sonder & Dram in Lewiston last week as server Melanie Roy heads to another table of patrons with menus. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The City Council on Tuesday extended rules that encourage outdoor dining in hopes of giving restaurants more options heading into an uncertain winter.

The unanimous vote keeps in place a previously approved resolution that authorizes city staff to work with businesses to expand operations when needed, including onto municipal rights of way, and public or private open spaces and parking areas.

The council initially approved the resolution in May, which also waives fees for park use and sidewalk and street occupancy.

Several businesses in the downtown area have utilized the option since May, when municipalities were still dealing with the first wave of COVID-19. Now, as cases are reaching record highs and winter approaches, restaurants are trying to remain nimble and adapt to frequent changes.

Some restaurant owners told the Sun Journal last week that they had already packed up their patio furniture for the winter, while others said they were adding fire pits, heat lamps and other means to continue offering outdoor dining.

The original resolution was set to expire on Nov. 1, or whenever social distancing requirements were lifted, whichever came first. Now, with council approval, the time frame for expiration will now coincide with Maine’s state of emergency.

City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said Tuesday that he didn’t have specific numbers on how many restaurants have taken advantage of the rules, but said the city went through several applications for a variety of scenarios for businesses when the rules first took effect.

He said the city doesn’t necessarily expect to see a few new applications following the extension, but staff said new businesses are encouraged to come forward.

City Councilor Zack Pettengill questioned why there is an expiration to the resolution at all, rather than “rolling forward” with the updated rules.

D’Auteuil said if it were to be considered permanently, the language would likely need further scrutiny because it deals with closing public rights of way like sidewalks. But, he said, staff would be open to drafting some kind of permanent solution.

Mayor Mark Cayer said he’s supportive of a more permanent change.

“We really should be thinking about eliminating the (permit fees), and allowing our businesses to use the areas they need, but I do believe it would require a broader discussion,” he said.

Several Lewiston restaurants are still offering outdoor dining, including Fish Bones Grill on Lincoln Street and Sonder & Dram on Ash Street.

Peter Flanders, co-owner of Sonder & Dram, told the Sun Journal last week that they plan to offer the patio service, with a fire pit and heat lamps, as long as temperatures are above 20 degrees. But he also said the ability for restaurants to survive the winter will take flexibility, especially as rules may continue to change.

For many restaurants that includes pushing more online takeout orders. Others are banking on larger indoor spaces that allow for easier distancing.

Michael Dostie, president of the Downtown Lewiston Association, said Wednesday that the bottom line is businesses need patrons to survive.

“People need to continue supporting local businesses by ordering takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery,” he said. “Without continuous cash flow, this could be an impossible winter to survive.”

Dostie also said that with COVID-19 cases on the rise in Maine, “the community needs to be hyper vigilant in mask wearing, social distancing, and avoiding social gatherings.”

“I know it has been said over and over but we need to slow the spread because Gov. Mills and the Department of Economic and Community Development will have no choice but to reinstate restrictions. This would be the very worst thing that could happen to our businesses. So everyone needs to understand that mask wearing can help save our local economy,” he said.

Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said restaurant owners, during recent talks with the chamber, said “consumer preference and behavior was going to be the most impactful to operations,” meaning restaurants would have to adapt to the changing habits of customers.

“Many were preparing for or have already made available online ordering and expanded curbside or takeout options. Some are looking at heated patios and leveraging any remaining warm weather,” she said. “And while all are concerned with increasing case rates and changing capacity restrictions, ensuring customers have options and feel safe is the key to sustaining operations.”

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