When Frederick began allowing restaurants to offer outdoor dining at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was expected to be popular with restaurants and diners.
Now, as the city considers a return to something resembling a pre-pandemic reality, the future of the outdoor dining areas will have to be determined.
Outdoor dining has been popular with customers since it went into effect, said Keelin Mallory, general manager at Firestone’s Culinary Tavern on North Market Street.
Even in the middle of winter, people would come armed with blankets and ask to sit outside, she said. With indoor capacity limits now lifted, many are still asking to sit outside, Mallory added.
Personally, Mallory likes the way different restaurants’ umbrellas add splashes of color to Market Street.
The city has 18 restaurants, breweries and distilleries that have been approved for parklets – dining areas set up in street parking spaces or other areas, said Richard Griffin, the city’s director of economic development.
The city began allowing restaurants to set up outdoor dining in May 2020.
The parklet program is scheduled to last through either the end of October or 30 days from the end of the city’s state of emergency that was declared in March 2020.
But the city intends to allow the parklets through Oct. 31, which may require additional legislation if the state of emergency ends sooner, Griffin said in an email.
The Orchard, also located on North Market Street, already had a designated outdoor seating area and didn’t participate in the city’s parklet program.
But owner Jim Hickey said he’s still a supporter of the idea and likes the liveliness it’s added to downtown. Even at the height of the pandemic, the tables on the sidewalks and along the streets made it feel like things were still happening downtown, he said.
Like Mallory, Hickey was surprised at how many people were willing to sit outside in the colder months.
Since the capacity limits were lifted, he still sees plenty of people who only want to sit outside, either out of health concerns or just because they like it.
But Hickey has also seen a lot of customers who are eager to get back to indoor dining.
“I’ve seen a lot of old familiar faces that I haven’t seen since the start of the pandemic,” Hickey said.
He hopes the city will look at making the outdoor dining a permanent feature of downtown.
Mayor Michael O’Connor said he also hopes that the city will be more open to outdoor and pop-up dining opportunities in the future.
But before it could make any permanent changes, the city would need to make sure that services such as deliveries, public transportation and fire and rescue services can still be accommodated, he said.
Last summer, the city closed off several blocks of North Market Street on weekends to allow restaurants to move tables into the street.
This year, they’ll close Market Street from Patrick Street to Third Street from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of June, July, and August to provide a similar space.
Much of the long-term future of outdoor dining downtown could depend on the outcome of a streetscape study being conducted by the Downtown Frederick Partnership to look at how to use the space between the buildings of Market Street between South Street and Seventh Street and Patrick Street between Bentz and East streets.
A survey as part of the study found a lot of interest in outdoor dining from different parts of the community, said Kara Norman, the partnership’s executive director.
The study will look at creating thoughtful design solutions, set priorities and develop a framework for future improvements to the streetscape for the pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and other people who shop, dine and attend events in the downtown area. The answers may be different for different areas given Market and Patrick streets make up a pretty long corridor, Norman said.
What would work best at the Square Corner at the intersection of Market and Patrick may not be the same as what you would do farther up, she said.