News: Quick Takes

Bills to expand outdoor seating at restaurants moving through legislature

The N.C. Senate Committee on Commerce and Insurance on Tuesday, May 26, approved duplicate amendments to a pair of bills revising state alcohol laws as they apply to outdoor seating in restaurants.

The two bills, which do similar things but apply to different businesses, would effectively expand outdoor seating for restaurants, which are struggling because of the pandemic and because of Gov. Roy Cooper’s restrictive lockdown orders. 

Phase Two of Cooper’s order allowed restaurants — which now includes brewpubs, thanks to another amendment — as well as breweries, wineries, and distilleries, to open in a limited capacity last week. Owners remain wary, however, because many people remain anxious about returning to restaurants and the like.

Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, who is sponsoring the measures, said they “will hopefully be a lifeline for our restaurants as we work through a very, very tough time.”

The amendments, which apply to proposed committee substitutes of House Bill 536 — one time ABC omnibus reform — and a new House Bill 902 — clarify the word “tent,” as it applies to a temporary structure in which restaurants may serve customers. The provision would end Oct. 31, or when the governor lifts his executive orders, whichever comes later.  

The committee approved the amendments, and have referred the bills to the Senate’s rules committee.

“You’re changing the lives of potentially 350,000-plus individuals in our state and the businesses that hire them,” Gunn told lawmakers in the meeting, before thanking them.

H.B. 536, for instance, includes key provisions.

“The outdoor food and drink service seating capacity,” H.B. 536 says, “ is limited to 50% of the current indoor seating capacity of the establishment, or 100 customers, whichever is less.”

Importantly, the bill says, “The outdoor seating area authorized in … this act shall not be prohibited by a municipality or county because the outdoor seating area is not a permitted use for operation of food and drink services under zoning ordinances.”