The Boston Licensing Board told beer-garden operators it's still trying to figure out new state regulations on food and liquor service in a time of pandemic - and warned Allston/Brighton liquor-license holders they better be on their best behavior, because the city's already getting too many complaints about them, even before college students deluge the neighborhood.
The board discussed the new Covid-19 regulations in the first two of its planned five hearings with license holders. Tomorrow, it Zooms in with owners of restaurants in the Seaport specifically, South Boston more generally and with operators of veterans' and social clubs with liquor licenses.
Board Chairwoman Kathleen Joyce praised beer-garden operators, saying that while the board has gotten complaints from the public about them, in particular about maskless would-be patrons clustered together in lines outside, her inspectors have reported no problems. But she cautioned them they have to bust up any lines of people waiting to get in, ensure patrons don't cluster once they're in and require that they don masks whenever they step away from their table.
Also, the beer gardens have to serve food with their alcohol, "substantial" food, to be exact, that is prepared on site - no more pretending bags of potato chips or prepared sandwiches from elsewhere are "food" that the state says was letting bars pretend to be restaurants, when bars are not even supposed to be open.
But then the question becomes: What, exactly is "substantial" food? John Lincecum, co-owner of the Turtle Swamp brewery in Jamaica Plain and beer hall in Roslindale, asked if hot dogs or panini sandwiches grilled on site would qualify as "substantial."
Joyce acknowledged she doesn't know; that the state had not given the licensing board in its largest city any more specifics than it had tossed out to the public. "We're trying to figure it out just as much as you are," she said. "We're not prepared to answer that today," agreed Daniel Manning, assistant commissioner of ISD's health division.
"I know you're doing your best," Joyce said, adding the last thing the city wants to do is shut anybody down, but that public health, even if not yet fully codified, is now the board's top priority.
Later in the day, Joyce said something similar to owners of Allston/Brighton restaurants with liquor licenses. But the board was far less pleased overall with what it's been seeing in that neighborhood.
"The number of complaints from this neighborhood has been unacceptable," she said.
She said too many Allston/Brighton license holders have been crowding too many people into patios, letting patrons sit at the bar, offering live entertainment outdoors and basically turning themselves into nightclubs at night, at a time when those are specifically banned.
She did not name names, but BPD Robert Harrington did - the Garage on Linden Street, whose manager attended the session and which Harrington warned he has his eye on. Mark Dioguiardi of the Garage told other license holders to learn from his mistakes.
Joyce added that up until now, BPD licensing officers have not been issuing citations for crowding and other Covid-19 concerns, because they have been trying to educate restaurant owners, but that future violations could mean citations leading to disciplinary hearings before the board. The officers also have the right to immediately shut any temporary patios allowed under the city's emergency outdoor-dining regulations.
Joyce and Det. Eddie Hernandez of the BPD licensing unit said that with students on the way back, even if in reduced numbers this fall, bars and restaurants need to be especially careful with enforcing the state's ban outside establishments.
But as with hot dogs, the board again had problems with defining just what the state wants: Although the state has issued a ban on "lines," one restaurant owner asked if it would be acceptable if he had staffers outside to ensure everybody waiting to get in had a mask on and was six feet away from people in front of and behind them. Joyce said that seemed to her like it might be OK, but that she could not give her blessing because the state regulations were not specific enough.
Douglas Bacon, who owns several restaurants in the area, pleaded for leniency in regulation enforcement. First, he said, "we can't really legally control people outside," although the board begged to differ. But board Executive Secretary Lesley Delaney Hawkins noted that "at the end of the day, it's your liquor license that's on the line."
But Bacon added that if all the restaurants were shut for Covid-19 reasons, well, you know how students are - they would just move to unsupervised apartment and even block parties outside their apartments, and it really makes sense to let operators like him provide a more supervised environment in which to provide a safe dining environment; otherwise, "the problem may get worse."