As COVID-19 response efforts imposed statewide restrictions on restaurant and beverage establishments last spring, Arlington County implemented Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs) as a way to help these businesses navigate the pandemic.
To date, the County has approved 93 TOSAs at restaurants, bars, and cafés. These expanded or newly created spaces added more than 2,800 temporary seats to help businesses serve more customers while complying with mandatory requirements of the Governor’s executive orders and reopening plan.
Now that cooler temperatures are moving in, many restaurants and bars are looking to prep these spaces for winter weather—and the County has provided guidance to help restaurants maintain their outdoor seating safely.
Meeting building and fire safety requirements
In October, Arlington expanded its TOSA process to include consideration of outdoor heaters, tents and other elements that would assist restaurants with winterizing their spaces. The Transitioning to Winter: A Guide for Traditional and Temporary Outdoor Dining Areas document provides clear guidance to restaurants and bars on how to operate outdoor dining cafes safely and responsibly during the 2020-2021 winter season. It also includes information on when permits are required and a set of frequently asked questions.
Fortunately, Arlington was able to assert its local authority to quickly and flexibly allow for TOSAs. However, the County does not have the same flexibility with Building and Fire Codes, since the Governor’s Executive Orders did not affect these state-regulated ordinances. The County must continue to follow and enforce all related Building and Fire Codes to ensure that TOSAs do not compromise the public’s health and safety. Most tents and heaters are typically regulated by one, if not both, of these statewide codes.
Use of tents and heaters
The County’s fire and building safety personnel have reviewed the fire code as it applies to heaters and tents with state fire officials. Code requirements include:
- Portable propane heaters (20lb cylinders) cannot be used under tents or within 5 feet of the building, combustibles, or exits from the building.
- Heaters using larger propane cylinders or alternate fuel source must have 10–foot clearances from the products mentioned above. The larger heaters require a review by the County’s Inspection Services Division due to building code and mechanical code requirements for air exchanges and proper ventilation.
- Electric heaters under a tent are allowed if they are approved for outdoor use and under a tent or membrane structure., however an Electrical Permit may be required to provide power to the heaters.
- Temporary tents, those in use for 180 days over 12 months, can be used next to a building if they meet all building and safety criteria, such as no cooking under the tent and maintaining proper exit distances from the building. A fire permit is required for these tents.
Support for businesses
Arlington continues to support businesses seeking to winterize their outdoor seating areas, and the County’s Fire Prevention Office is committed to working with Arlington businesses seeking to set up outdoor heated spaces and facilitate code consultations.
Where County inspectors find issues, Fire Prevention Office staff are providing information to businesses on how to correct code violations and seek proper temporary approvals, to avoid continued non-compliance and further actions such as potential notices of violation. County staff will continue to work with any restaurant that requests code consultations or other assistance to find a way to safely operate.