Montine McNulty, who’s been with the Arkansas Hospitality Association since 1997 and so has some perspective, thinks COVID-19 will leave permanent marks on the restaurant industry in Arkansas, among them: increased outdoor dining.
In an effort to facilitate social distancing and make diners feel comfortable, a number of restaurants have enlarged or built patios, and those won’t go away.
Encouraging that development was Act 705, passed in the 2021 legislative session. The act made it easier for restaurants that served alcohol to expand outdoor dining without getting prior approval from the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division as long as the expansion received the approval of local government.
If the expanded dining increases seating capacity in a way that could result in a change in permit type, restaurants still must get prior approval from the ABC.
“You have to realize that what we’ve gone through is not just going to go back to normal,” McNulty said. “We have a new normal.”
Act 703, also passed during the recent session, allows restaurants with liquor permits in wet counties to sell alcoholic beverages in sealed containers for pickup and delivery, as long as a meal is also purchased. Both Acts 705 and 703 codified emergency measures permitted by Gov. Asa Hutchinson at the start of the pandemic to help the struggling industry stay afloat.
Takeout and delivery also will likely remain a bigger part of many restaurants’ business model, McNulty said.
Some quick-service restaurants have kept their dining rooms closed despite the easing of restrictions because “they’ve done so well with their window service and their carryout that that is becoming their new model,” she said.