MEDFORD — Vittorio Ettore’s Medford restaurant, Bistro 5, was “basically 100% empty” at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday when a city official happened to stop in and suggested he needed a patio.
Ettore was skeptical of the idea at first, he recalled Thursday. His Italian restaurant is at a busy intersection, and with the West Medford commuter rail station nearby, overlooks steady train and bus traffic.
“There’s a lot going on in the streets, but she really got me inspired to actually do a small patio, and I have to say, since we decided that evening, within five days, I was able to do business outside, which is kind of incredible,” Ettore said. “We went from doing roughly about under 30 people per week in June and July, which is pretty crazy, to roughly 30 to 40 people a day, so that has changed our business completely.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn and other officials visited Bistro 5 Thursday, where Baker announced a doubling of the Shared Streets and Spaces grant program from $5 million to $10 million.
The grant program is aimed at helping cities and towns rework curbs, sidewalks, streets and parking spots to create areas for socially distanced walking, commerce, dining and other outdoor activities.
So far, Baker said, Shared Streets has distributed $7.7 million to fund 91 projects in 78 municipalities. Applications will be accepted until Sept. 22, and the money comes from both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and federal CARES Act funds.
The latest funding, totaling $3.9 million, includes $47,999 for Gardner to create outdoor dining opportunities and waiting areas for customers of barbers, hairdressers and nail salons downtown; $125,000 to install bike lanes in Lynn; almost $245,000 for Newburyport in support of “16 seasonal, reusable parklets”; and $61,100 for Westhampton to create a new, safer drop-off and pick-up zone at its elementary school, according to MassDOT.
Baker said Bistro 5 is one of several restaurants in Medford that’s been able to provide outdoor space by using the money for materials like Jersey barriers to block off a patio area.
When the weather turns cold and the days grow shorter, Shared Spaces money can also be used for things like heaters and special lighting to help restaurants extend their outdoor seasons, Baker said.
The governor said he planned Thursday to sign an executive order that would “extend the time-frame for municipal permitting for expanded outdoor dining.”
“That expansion will help restaurants like this one continue serving guests in their outdoor space on the same basic terms that have been permitted since June, and we hope this eases the burden on restaurants and extends their season for outdoor dining as well,” Baker said.
An order Baker issued in June aimed to help provide opportunities for outdoor table service by giving local authorities more flexibility to approve changes to liquor licenses. That order specifies that any amended license issued as a result of its provisions will revert back to its prior status on Nov. 1 or when the order is rescinded, whichever is sooner.
Baker called outdoor dining “an incredibly important part of how we maintain some degree of community during a period of time when we all know how difficult that can be.”
He and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito both said they have eaten indoors and outdoors at restaurants since restaurants were allowed to reopen for on-premises service.
A March order from Baker restricted restaurants to takeout and delivery only as COVID-19 cases were first climbing. Outdoor dining resumed in June and indoor dining, with social distancing requirements that limit the amount of customers that can be served at any one time, started later that month under the administration’s phased reopening plan.
“I think part of what we would want people to take out of out of today and other days like it is, people have done a lot of work, local government’s done a lot of work, the state’s done a lot of work and restaurants have done a lot of work to enhance the safety of their customers and their staff,” Baker said. “And I certainly think, you know, the fall will bring challenges and the winter will bring challenges, but I think if we do the things we’ve done and we need to continue to do — especially with respect to playing by the rules, wearing face coverings, socially distancing wherever we can — and we maintain a relatively low COVID transmission overall, it will make whatever we choose to do in the winter a heck of a lot easier to pull off.”
Ettore said he’s started to think about how to get Bistro 5 ready for the winter, and has begun looking into heat lamps. He said he’s been talking to the fire department about what’s allowed and what type of distance would be required around the lamps.
“This is what this COVID has brought us, this level of exponential uncertainty,” he said. “But the one thing that I am actually certain of is that people are working together to make this happen.”