With the Commonwealth’s plan to allow a gradual reopening of the Massachusetts economy, the Cape Cod Commission seeks to support local businesses and our communities as they face new challenges operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so will require businesses to modify operations and develop new business plans. While many local businesses have shown impressive creativity and ingenuity as they’ve adapted their business models to operate during this time, municipalities play a key role in helping them succeed, especially in this new environment.
This COVID-19 Municipal Planning Strategies Toolkit provides information for Cape Cod towns on how they can support the needs of local businesses as they operate during this period of social distancing requirements. It contains strategies to accommodate the new operational standards and includes examples from other municipalities that have expanded opportunities for businesses to offer their goods and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several strategies also include sample checklists to help towns develop administrative review procedures. These are intended as examples of potential items to include and will vary depending on town operations and needs.
Permits or approvals for curbside pickup, outdoor seating, or other changes in the use of space may take weeks or months to obtain under normal conditions. However, as the world is shifting daily with the COVID-19 pandemic, and many businesses have been closed for weeks or months, being able to reopen quickly—but safely—is critical for their survival. Developing and implementing creative approaches to permitting and approvals is critical for businesses’ success.
Expediting the permitting or approvals process could entail town boards appointing designees to carry out administrative review of proposals. In other cases, towns might consider temporarily eliminating types of review or suspending certain regulations for a time. In addition to considerations about expediting permitting or approvals, towns might consider reducing fees for some temporary permits, deferring licensing or permitting fees payment, or providing some of these temporary permits or licenses for free. Several municipalities have waived or reduced fees to help cash-strapped businesses. For example, the City of Worcester has waived the regular $100 licensing application fee and the $156 fee for an outdoor seating permit “in recognition of the financial hardship experienced by our restaurants” according to a statement.
The information provided here is intended as short-term or temporary approaches for municipalities during the pandemic. When adopting a temporary COVID-19-related policy, a town might want to limit the measure to a period of three to six months and include language that it could be modified or rescinded at any time. The duration of a temporary permit or allowance is up to the town, though towns may want to consider the “season” and what timeframes would make the most sense in light of that. Towns might also consider aligning the timeframe of these temporary strategies or permits with the state’s emergency declaration. If a newly adopted approach is not working as intended, or as needs change with a changing health environment, these processes and permits can be modified.
The gradual opening of the Massachusetts economy and our local businesses will require adopting new policies and trying new ways, with continual evaluation, especially as the pandemic conditions and state guidelines change.
Legal Mechanisms for Adopting Temporary Regulations
Best practice for amending existing bylaws, ordinances and regulations is that they should only be amended consistent with state and local statutory requirements for adoption (or as individual statutes may prescribe for amendments). Town counsel should be consulted in each instance.
Adopted guidance and criteria, such as may be adopted to guide some site plan review procedures, may be subject to administrative amendment, depending on the method of adoption. Towns should seek an opinion from town counsel to determine best practices for all types of proposed amendments.
Other Ways Municipalities Can Help Local Businesses
In addition to streamlining and easing the permitting processes to allow for businesses to open quickly as the public health environment changes, there are some other ways municipalities may be able to help their local businesses as they mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Marketing Assistance: Towns could help to market their community businesses by providing information on their websites on what is open, and with photos, graphics, and short videos. Several Cape cultural districts link to Facebook pages and are up-to-date with “open for business announcements” and information about COVID-19 rules. The Cape Cod Commission and Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce COVID-19 Business Impacts Survey found many businesses need help with marketing, communications, and social media.
- Grant Programs: Towns and Chambers can coordinate with local organizations and businesses to develop grant programs to support small businesses. Love Live Local and the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District worked with several town Chambers of Commerce to create the Cape Cod Resilience Fund, providing direct grants to small business owners on Cape Cod to offer some relief from economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Municipal Purchasing/Resale: Purchasing outdoor dining furniture and tents for safely operating during COVID-19 is a significant cost burden for cash-strapped restaurants. A municipality might consider helping ease the cost burden by purchasing simple tables and chairs at a bulk rate and reselling them at cost to local businesses, or by purchasing tables and chairs and placing them at public locations for use by local businesses