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Outdoor seating could allow bars to reopen, restaurants to expand under bills moving through Senate

Posted May 26, 2020 8:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2020 2:07 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina bars – their doors still shuttered by executive order – could serve patrons outdoors during the pandemic in legislation heading to the Senate floor.

One measure attempts to increase the customer base for restaurants and breweries that have been allowed to partially reopen their indoor serving areas under Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order taking effect last week.

House Bill 536, which had been an overhaul of state liquor laws, was amended in the Senate Commerce committee on Tuesday to allow restaurants to use outdoor seating to expand their capacity. Under current rules, restaurants are limited to half capacity with indoor seating, and the bill would allow them to add another 50 percent, or up to 100 customers, whichever is less, at outdoor tables.

Meanwhile, House Bill 902, which initially dealt with helping military members and their spouses to be licensed for particular jobs in North Carolina, was amended in the Senate Commerce committee to allow bars and similar private clubs that remain completely closed under Cooper's executive order to sell beverages outside, whether on a patio or under a tent or awning.

As with the restaurant bill, the bars' outdoor seating would be limited to 50 percent of indoor capacity or 100 people, whichever is less.

Under both bills, outdoor seating would have to follow social distancing guidelines and be adjacent to the restaurant but could overflow into nearby parking lots, onto sidewalks or into streets, if local governments and neighboring property owners approved. Areas for alcohol consumption also would be cordoned off.

Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, who is shepherding both bills, said they would help a food and beverage industry decimated by the coronavirus and the resulting shutdown orders that began in March. A restaurant trade group estimated that 350,000 employees lost their jobs when restaurants were barred from dine-in service.

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