NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Restaurant owners like Meldgie’s Diner proprietor Mark Eldridge got a boost from the state this week, when Gov. Dan McKee signed a bill that extends outdoor dining until next spring.
“This outdoor dining means everything right now, because with COVID coming back, it’s even more important than ever” Eldridge said during a ceremonial signing by the governor Monday at Meldgie’s on Boston Neck Road.
“This outdoor dining has revitalized this restaurant in particular,” Eldridge said. “This restaurant was in trouble three months ago.”
With business still struggling from extended closure and then reduced capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was the only one of his three Meldgie’s locations with suitable space to put out tables and chairs. The others are in Wakefield and Point Judith.
This week, thanks in part to outdoor seating, the diner recorded its largest sales numbers in its history, according to Eldridge.
“This is a win for our local businesses,” McKee said. “Restaurant and bar owners have faced extraordinary challenges since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but have still managed to adapt to serve and accommodate their customers and employees. Outdoor seating has allowed business owners to increase seating capacity and recoup some of the losses they incurred due to the pandemic. I’m proud to sign this legislation into law as it’s a win for the businesses and for customers who want to dine outside.”
The legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee and State Sens. Alana DiMario and Bridget Valverde (D-Dist. 35, East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett), puts a moratorium on enforcement of municipal ordinances or zoning requirements that would penalize restaurant and bar owners for modifying their premises to allow for outdoor dining.
Under the law, the moratorium will remain effective until April 1, 2022.
McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett), chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, crafted the legislation, designed to continue to allow outdoor meals even as executive orders dealing with COVID are lifted or expire.
“This was my brainstorm during the pandemic when I realized we’re all dining outside in locations that aren’t exactly permitted by the individual cities and towns,” McEntee said. “But it’s working. And I thought, ‘We can’t roll up the carpet just as the summer season hits.’”
Receiving approval for outdoor dining is often a difficult and costly move for a restaurant, McEntee said.
“These small businesses, restaurants and bars have suffered enough during the pandemic,” she said.
DiMario (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) said the legislation will also allow the establishments to apply to make successful and popular changes permanent, such as outdoor dining areas and takeout windows.
“It was inspiring to see how establishments and patrons adapted to the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 and in order to continue this momentum through our summer of recovery, these small businesses need and deserve to continue with the operations that allowed them to survive over the past 18 months,” DiMario said.
McKee is no stranger to Meldgie’s or its next door neighbor, Pelly’s Place, which shares the same building along with Leo’s Pizza.
“Last fall, Gov. McKee spent a day here in Narragansett meeting with various business owners such as Tim Pelleccione from Pelly’s Place,” Peg Fradette, executive director of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce, said. “Tim, along with his business neighbors, pulled together a makeshift outdoor venue on the fly. They exemplified the silver lining of the pandemic by sharing both resources and customers. This led to the ‘plazas’ and many of our north end businesses reporting their most successful season ever. We are thrilled and honored the governor is back to sign this important legislation in this particular location.”
McKee also stopped at Meldgie’s in 2014 when he ran for lieutenant governor, as part of a “cup of coffee” tour of the state’s 39 municipalities. He returned late last year to Meldgie’s Wakefield location to tout the availability of stimulus funds for small businesses.
McKee said he is preparing a “small business-friendly package” for the next budget.
“We expect that to be a multi-tiered effort, and we’re going to be going to (McEntee) and (DiMario) for advice to make sure that that list represents Rhode Island in a real strong way,” he said.
McKee recognized the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association.
“We are so pleased to see the extension of approved, outdoor dining in Rhode Island,” Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the association, said. “The hospitality industry was devastated throughout the pandemic with total shutdowns and then limited operations. As we work toward operating fully while keeping health and safety best practices in place, making approved outdoor dining easier provides welcome additional space during the summer months and beyond.”
Eldridge credited Pelleccione with doing the planning for the outdoor dining at the site, and thanked State Rep. Kathleen Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown), a longtime patron who attended Monday’s ceremony. He also expressed gratitude to Narragansett Town Manager James Tierney and Town Council President Jesse Pugh.