The outdoor dining program in Boston's North End will get off to a late start — and require restaurants to unexpectedly pony up.
The city planned to begin allowing restaurants in the neighborhood, renowned for its Italian eateries and historic character, to have outdoor seating on April 8. But the city has delayed that until May 1. And Thursday night, the city announced North End restaurants will have to pay a $7,500 fee for the ability to host patrons outdoors.
Bob Luz of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said the fee came out of nowhere.
"The North End community — and I would say rightly so — is very up in arms," Luz said. "Two weeks before they're getting ready to open, they find something like this out."
Money from the fee will be used to offset problems like parking associated with outdoor dining, the city said. Boston has formed a committee to oversee how the funds are spent within the North End community.
Restaurants in Boston and across the state have hailed outdoor dining as a major boon to business amid the pandemic, especially when COVID-19 surges drove away customers leery of eating indoors. North End restaurateur Frank DePasquale called outdoor dining "a savior" in a WBUR interview last March.
Some North End residents however said they grew tired of the crowds, traffic and noise that expanded outdoor dining brought to their backyard last spring and summer.
The North End's old, narrow streets are jam-packed with restaurants, creating unique considerations for city officials around planning and applications. Last spring, restaurants in the North End could set up al fresco seating on public sidewalks and certain streets.
In November, Mayor Michelle Wu extended Boston's 2021 outdoor dining season through New Year's Eve. But the change excluded the North End. And it's a similar story this year: The citywide end date for outdoor dining is "a date to be determined in December," Boston officials said — except in the North End, which will wind down the season on Sept. 5 or "possibly Sept. 30, depending on compliance."
Wu defended the new fees in comments to WBUR Saturday. It's a balancing act, she said: outdoor dining is good for business, but it has tradeoffs, like more rodents and trash.
"We want to both support the restaurants and the neighbors, and that means we have to have some way to address the extra impacts here," Wu said.
Even with warmer weather on the way, the city's latest move is leaving restaurants with a bad taste in their mouths, Luz said, particularly after the pandemic took a big bite out of the bottom lines of those that managed to stay afloat.
"These guys don't have two nickels to rub together yet," he said, adding the fee "doesn't seem like the best way to promote what's really been a tremendous community-building project over the last couple of years."
Ducali Pizzeria has hosted outdoor dining the last two years. But owner Philip Frattaroli says with the new fees the restaurant likely won't this summer. He hopes the city and restaurants will be able to reach a compromise, because he's concerned what the costs will mean for small businesses.
"There is a value to the city that we're bringing," he said. "And if restaurants start to close, that's not good for anybody."
With reporting from WBUR's Josie Guarino, Paul Connearney and Amanda Beland.