An example of what sidewalk dining might look like on Main Street. Image: Supervisor Yvette Aguiar's Power Point presentation

As Long Island begins to reopen its economy by entering Phase One of the NY Forward reopening plan adopted by the state, Riverhead officials are looking ahead to Phase Three. That’s when restaurants and food service businesses will be cleared to resume operations — with restrictions to ensure compliance with social distancing and other guidelines that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Those restrictions will limit occupancy for indoor dining to 50% of an establishment’s rated occupancy and that makes it difficult if not impossible for restaurants — already struggling to survive since the March shut-down order limited their operations to takeout and delivery only —  to maintain the minimum level of business they need to survive.

Riverhead is working on plans to allow temporary outdoor dining, with table service, utilizing public spaces as needed to give restaurants the ability to expand beyond their dining rooms. The plans would be subject to approvals by the county health department and the State Liquor Authority. If the plans are put in place, the outdoor tables would boost restaurants to a level equal to their usual occupancies.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar at yesterday’s work session presented a plan to the town board to allow outdoor dining, taking recommendations from the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce and Riverhead Business Improvement District into account. The plan requires code changes, which may come about by legislation or executive order, Aguiar said.

Restaurants would be allowed to place tables and chairs and in some cases tents, on sidewalks and in areas of municipal parking lots.

A pedestrian walkway would be created in the street along the curb. It would be protected by steel barricades.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio is advocating putting up a large tent on town property, perhaps in the riverfront parking lot, that downtown restaurants would be able to use collectively.

Town officials need to figure out how to implement and enforce these new policies, even as various departments are themselves reopening and dealing with a backlog of work as businesses allowed to reopen in Phase One need permits, inspections and approvals.

The fire marshal’s office is one department that will likely be slammed with a backlog of plans to review and approve and inspections to make — and the office lost one of its three fire marshals, who resigned his post March 24. The town’s emergency budget plan calls for leaving the position vacant, as a cost-saving measure. The town also has a vacant part-time inspector position in the office, which town board members yesterday agreed to fill, even if only temporarily, to assist with inspections.

Unless the state agrees to allow restaurants to reopen sooner — and there has been a push to make that happen, with advocates arguing that it is possible to reopen and meet all mandates for social distancing and other protections — the eateries cannot reopen until the region enters Phase Three.

The timing of the arrival of Phase Three depends on how the region progresses through Phase One — which Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday would begin today — and Phase Two. The region will have to monitor certain metrics to make sure that reopening of Phase One businesses —  including construction, agriculture, fishing, retail curbside pickup, manufacturing and wholesale trade — doesn’t cause a resurgence of the virus in local communities.

If all goes well, the region will be cleared to enter Phase Two, when most offices and retail establishments can open for business — again, with restrictions to ensure compliance with social distancing and other guidelines that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Each phase is scheduled to last a minimum of two weeks so that each “regional control room” can determine that there has been no resurgence of the virus.

“I believe we may see a shortening of that timeframe,” County Executive Steven Bellone said this morning during an interview on Fox & Friends. “Other places opened earlier and we can learn from them. That’s what we’re looking to do.”

Yesterday, after Cuomo announced that Long Island was eligible to begin reopening today, Bellone called the green light “a real milestone for us.”

“In many ways we’ve been through hell over the last couple of months,” Bellone said this morning. “We’ve lost thousands of people. Economic devastation has occurred,” he said. “Small businesses are teetering on the edge. They’re ready to come back.”

Bellone said business owners want to reopen safely, to protect their employees and their customers.

“They don’t want a setback,” the county executive said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.