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Seattle Extends Free Outdoor Seating Permits for Restaurants Until Next October

The city is also offering some new tent and heater allowances for winter

Outside Pike Place Market, in view of a giant mural in the background, diners sit, eat, drink, and converse on a patio with pink umbrellas.
Pike Place Market cordoned off areas on the cobblestone streets for outdoor seating over the summer.
Suzi Pratt

Looks like Seattle’s al fresco dining efforts are going to stick around awhile. On Wednesday, the city announced that free, expedited permits to expand sidewalk seating and close off streets for outdoor plazas will be available through October 31, 2021 — a full year after the initiative was set to expire.

In addition, the city will now be issuing free tent and heater permits for restaurants who wish to winterize their patios, and outdoor dining equipment can remain outside 24/7. Previously, the Seattle Fire Department did not allow heating elements outside without a special costly permit, even if the establishment already had sidewalk space or streets cordoned off, and restaurants needed to properly store equipment (like heat lamps) inside after closing. Even with the newly adjusted rules, the city recommends owners bring their equipment inside during severe weather.

Back in July, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that restaurants (and other retail businesses) in Seattle could apply for a special permit to close down one or more blocks in order to find more room for outdoor service, which experts believe carries a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission than enclosed indoor spaces. To date, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has issued 151 free street use permits, including 11 blocks that have been opened for small businesses in various neighborhoods.

The extension into 2021 should be good news for restaurants concerned whether seasonal changes would nip any outdoor dining expansions in the bud, since the new patios around the city have been a hit with diners so far. The effort came pretty late in the game this summer, once the permit applications were approved, and the dangerous air quality in early September due to wildfire smoke closed many patios down temporarily. With rainy, colder weather arriving, several chefs and owners had expressed doubts on whether going through the effort to winterize such seating would be worth it.

“We’re starting to think about tenting and heaters but candidly, we’ve barely made our money back from the original investment for the street dining and it’s hard to think about throwing more money at it,” said Jennifer Petty, co-owner of Eden Hill Provisions in Queen Anne, which successfully applied for a street use permit.

Now that the free permits can be acquired through next October, it could give some places a lifeline — provided they can hang on until the spring. It helps that the permits are free, but equipment costs for outdoor seating — which can range into the tens of thousands — still fall on the businesses themselves to cover, just when many are struggling to make rent.

The City of Kent recently spent some money from the federal CARES Act to provide some tents and heaters for area restaurant. When asked whether a similar program could be enacted in Seattle, a spokesperson for Mayor Durkan said, “We’re working to identify potential funding to offer further assistance for businesses needing additional financial support.”

Potentially prohibitive costs aside, it’s also unclear whether certain winterized outdoor seating areas really offer the same lowered risk of disease transmission as indoor seating, if tent coverings (or in, some cases, domes) don’t have enough ventilation. And there’s no guarantee diners will embrace patio dining in colder weather, anyway.

Still, other cities that have grappled with severe COVID-19 outbreaks, such as New York, have also announced extensions of their own popular outdoor seating programs in 2021. And many chefs and owners will no doubt welcome any initiative that gives restaurants more flexibility.

“Even with colder weather arriving, knowing that these permits will be available to us without interruption relieves a lot of anxiety about planning, and gives us the ability to adapt to customer seating preferences through the next year,” said Charlie Anthe and Rumi Ohnui, owners of Moshi Moshi in Ballard.