August 19, 2020

Transitioning Outdoor Dining to Fall is a Focus of Merchants’ Meeting

By Anne Levin

During the pandemic, many Princeton restaurants have coped with the ban on indoor dining by serving patrons outside, at carefully distanced tables under tents or umbrellas. Business, for the most part, has been brisk. But with the end of summer approaching, a new set of challenges awaits.

Just how to cope with colder temperatures while still serving outdoors was among the topics at last Thursday’s virtual meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association. Additional discussions were about Princeton University’s plans for fall, a drop in cases of the coronavirus, and a plan to place representations of artwork from the Princeton University Art Museum in empty storefronts [see the story here].

Princeton Fire Official Joe Novak told merchants his department is working on a safety sheet outlining rules about using heaters outside. He has already received requests from some restaurants about how to proceed.

“A lot of people already have the tower-type heaters, which are absolutely acceptable,” he said. “They just have to be at least five feet from the building — two feet vertically, and three feet horizontally from any combustible surfaces. They won’t be allowed underneath canopies, but will be alongside them.”

The heaters cannot block sidewalks. When not in use, they should be turned off. “One thing we’re concerned about is that all of these have locks on them so you can’t access the tank or the valve,” he said. “It’s probably a great idea to lock them during off hours, and shut them off.”

Another concern is the proper storage of spare cylinders of propane. “There are a lot of limitations on where propane can be stored, and permits are required,” Novak said. “We’ll probably have to come out and work with you on that.”

Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, who has been closely involved in getting outdoor dining up and running, said this week that the town plans to keep it going through the fall as long as the weather holds. “We’re hoping for a mild winter,” she said. “The longer we can stay outside, I think the better. I think it has worked well so far for the majority of restaurants, and I would encourage any of those that haven’t opened [for outdoor dining] to try. We’re trying to waive fees for additional tents.”

The meeting also included a presentation by Princeton University Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget about the University’s recent decision to keep undergraduates off campus for the fall semester. The lack of students in town has a direct effect on local restaurants and retail establishments.

“A week ago, it was going to be a very different update from what it is now,” she said. “it’s disappointing to many people, myself included, that we will not be welcoming undergraduates back this fall. But it’s important to note that graduate students will be on campus, working under specific protocols. Many of them are already here. A small number of undergraduates, who are housing-insecure, or for whom Princeton is their permanent residence, have remained on campus.”

Health and safety risks related to COVID-19 were too great to allow the University to proceed with an earlier plan to allow students to return in shifts. “We were going to have literally hundreds of students who would need to quarantine for 14 days,” Appelget continued. “There were diminished benefits to bringing the students back.”

The University is hoping to have the students return for the spring semester. In the meantime, the campus is still open for research and related pursuits, but Firestone Library, the Art Museum, Alexander Hall, and the Princeton University Chapel are closed to the public. “There are no gatherings on campus, no campus events, and any events held outside for more than 15 people will have to be managed,” Appelget said.

Princeton Health Officer Jeffrey Grosser reported that there were three cases of COVID-19 reported in the previous week, representing the lowest level since the pandemic began. “But I’m expecting that to change with some schools being back soon,” he said. With regard to businesses reopening, the department has two inspectors in the field to make sure it is being done correctly.

“We have gotten a few complaints about people not wearing masks, but for the most part it has been great,” Grosser said. “Any questions on exposures, masks, or anything else, we’re here for you.”

The Health Department is preparing for the potential rollout of a vaccine against the virus, though there is no word on when that might happen. “We want to make sure that when it is available, we’ll be able to vaccinate,” he said. “We’re getting locations ready and set up,” Grosser said. “We’re working closely with the University because they’re doing that as well.”

Grosser concluded by thanking businesses for their collaborations with the Health Department. “I know this hasn’t been easy on any businesses. We really want to work with you in terms of education and compliance,” he said.