A street-dining patio in Central Squares. Dozens of the Covid-era patios are ordered to be gone by December. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Restaurants citywide will soon have to pack up their makeshift street patios – some of which began to look as permanent as the restaurants themselves – as Cambridge’s city manager has turned down an appeal to keep outdoor dining throughout the winter.

The permits for the patios, many of them shielded by concrete Jersey barriers and elaborate wood fencing, end Nov. 30. Neighboring Somerville has also ordered that its street dining areas that stayed through the Covid pandemic must be dismantled and gone before December.

A call to keep Cambridge’s outdoor dining was made Monday by councillor Quinton Zondervan, noting that “it was 70 degrees two days ago, and there will be warm days in December.”

That would make packing up the patio areas a missed economic opportunity to seat diners and “a significant burden” on restaurants in terms of labor and having to “store them somewhere and reassemble them in the spring,” Zondervan said. “Some may decide not to invest in that and not to bring that back in the spring.”

“I’m hoping that we can do one more winter and figure out a long-term solution,” Zondervan said.

His motion was adopted 9-0, with councillor Patty Nolan adding a note that she hoped the city could subsidize restaurants to use electric heaters, moving them away from the environmental impact of propane heaters.

Concerns over snow and parking – especially weighed against how much less use the street patios get in the winter – were cited by City Manager Yi-An Huang in sticking to the original Nov. 30 end date. “Having additional structures in the public right of way poses major challenges for our plow drivers, especially on longer-duration storms. The cost of not being able to plow all the way back to the curb line and having to haul away snow is significant,” Huang said. His staff has also heard “complaints about the use of the public way, including parking spaces, for empty patios that are not in use.”

“Surrounding small businesses and the public see the value in parking loss for the sake of outdoor dining – which benefits restaurants owners, the public, the general level of street activity and the sense of place,” Huang said. “The parking loss was harder to accept when these spaces are left occupied but not in use over the winter months, not providing any public benefit.”

Businesses encountering problems removing their patios by Nov. 30 can get an extension of up to two weeks, but they can’t serve food or drink during that time, Huang said.

More than 80 restaurants kept their street-dining structures in place last winter. when Covid was still being treated as a pandemic crisis rather than endemic health problem; after Nov. 30, only eight citywide will be allowed to keep those patios. The structures – five of them in Central Square – will stay through March 31, though without food or drink service, because traffic changes keep their spaces from being returned to general use, Huang said. The other three are between a separated bike lane and curb and can’t be used for parking or other purposes. Those spaces could get one-day licenses for special holiday events, License Commission chair Nicole Murati Ferrer said Monday.

The city is also going back to restaurant licensing and inspection fees that were suspended during the Covid crisis. As an example of the impact, License Commission revenue took a hit of $544,000 each year, Huang said.


This post was updated Nov. 21, 2022, to add a comment by License Commission chair Nicole Murati Ferrer.