REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Bill Shields has served food and drinks into the early morning hours on Aqua Grill’s spacious wooden patio for the past six years.
And the previous owners, Shields said, did the same for decades before that.
So it came as some surprise to Shields and co-owner Joe Maggio when Rehoboth Beach police showed up last September, saying they had orders to close it down and arrest Shields.
Shields showed the officer a document from the city exempting him from Rehoboth’s now-controversial patio rules, but to no avail. Shields was booked and fingerprinted, part of a citywide crackdown on restaurant owners breaking rules forbidding service to outside diners after 10 p.m.
Most avoided arrest and fines by complying after the city notified them of the violations.
But business owners say the patio laws were rarely, if ever, enforced before last fall. And following the Memorial Day holiday, the season’s first big weekend, business owners are still discussing the patio debate that concluded last year’s beach season.
At least 10 of the dozen or so establishments targeted for enforcement are gay-owned or serve a mostly gay clientele, Shields said, leading some in the gay community to feel they were targeted.
The controversy has led to an apology from Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper, the recent censuring of a city commissioner and a season-long lifting of patio regulations until new rules are sorted out.
What does it mean for most beach-goers? A lot more places to eat and drink late into the night.
“As long as the people and the tables aren’t spilling onto the sidewalk, what’s the problem?” said New Castle resident Artur Almeida, who was visiting Rehoboth for the holiday weekend. “It’s a fun tourist town, and you have to evolve with that.”
In the fall, the board will re-evaluate the need, if any, for a patio code following a season without it, Cooper said.
“We weren’t getting anywhere debating this,” he said. “I think the idea was to give this a try and see how it goes. And in the fall, we’ll say, ‘Yes, it worked,’ or, ‘No, it was a nuisance,’ or something in between.”
The city’s “patio use restriction code” makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of $25 to $250, for restaurants to serve food and alcohol on outdoor patios after 10 p.m. When it was passed in 1991, businesses that had patios then, like Aqua, were grandfathered into the old rules and were allowed to continue serving until 1 a.m. The city dropped charges against Shields when it realized Aqua did have the right to serve on the patio after 10 p.m., as Shields had tried to explain.
City Commissioner Stan Mills was a driving force behind the effort to step up enforcement of the rules, according to a Delaware Public Integrity Commission opinion. Mills’ residential property on Maryland Avenue abuts the commercial area on Baltimore Avenue, including Aqua Grill, and he has complained about noise in the past.
The commission found Mills violated the state’s code of conduct for public officials, which bars using elected-office powers for personal gain in private matters. In the future, Mills must recuse himself from issues involving the patio code, Aqua Grill and the Blue Moon, another Baltimore Avenue restaurant that backs up to Mills’ property, the commission said.
Mills declined to comment.
Cooper got behind the enforcement effort because some restaurants followed the patio code and others didn’t. The city should have handled the enforcement better, the mayor said, by giving more notice and not citing businesses like Aqua that were grandfathered into the old rules.
“The city did not have its best face on,” Cooper said. But in no way were gay businesses targeted, he added.
Part of the tension grew out of what the vibe of the city will be in the future — a more predominantly gay town with a bustling restaurant and entertainment scene, Shields said.
“It’s not really a patio thing in my eyes,” he said. “It’s not a patio thing at all.”
The situation was inflamed when the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper that covers the Rehoboth community, paraphrased Cooper as saying that he wanted Rehoboth to be more family-friendly. Cooper said his comments were misrepresented and that he wouldn’t use those words when discussing something that affected gay residents. Many longtime residents recall the prevalence a decade ago of bumper stickers reading “Keep Rehoboth a family town” in reaction to the city’s growing popularity with gays.
“I never said that; I would never say that because I know what the connotations are,” he said. “It’s family-friendly. It’s gay-friendly. It’s just friendly. I think a few people are trying to make this a wedge issue by inflaming passions.”
By the same token, Cooper said, he does want to see Rehoboth maintain its current, laid-back vibe, and that was the original intent of the patio code.
“People had seen what Dewey Beach had become,” Cooper said. “And I don’t want to pick on them, because it’s fine for them. But we don’t want that.”
Several gay and straight business owners said the recent disagreements have not altered Rehoboth’s general reputation for having a welcoming environment. And some believe the extended patio hours will be good for business and good for tourists.
“Who doesn’t love idling on a patio on a beautiful summer night?” said Meg Gardner, co-owner of Blue Moon. “They want to feel like they’re at the beach. They want to feel the ocean breeze.”