In cities across America and abroad, local governments are scrambling to assist struggling restaurants that are being devastated by the Coronavirus pandemic. One of the seemingly easiest solutions being advanced is the conversion of public roads, sidewalks and parks to dining and entertainment spaces. Also part of these solutions is the relaxation of zoning and permitting requirements that prohibit restaurants and bars from extending dining and drinking service beyond the four walls and, if they have one, patio.
In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, the local municipality is turning entire streets and public parks over to restaurants to comply with social distancing guidelines while throwing independent businesses a lifeline. In Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor closed streets to cars and opened them up to restaurant seating. In Brookhaven, Georgia, Mayor John Ernst signed an executive order to permit restaurants to erect tents in parking lots for seating. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, stretches of Main Street have been handed over to restaurants for outdoor seating.
Here in Cleveland, not so much – at least not yet.
Later today, Governor DeWine is expected to set forth the guidelines that restaurants must follow if and when they reopen their dining rooms and outdoor seating areas. By most accounts, those rules will mandate significantly reduced occupancy limits and 6-foot distancing, challenges to any restaurant but especially ruinous for smaller eateries with little to no outdoor seating.
With warmer weather finally in sight, why not do everything we can to prop up our struggling businesses by giving them more room with which to operate, such as sidewalks, streets and other public spaces.
“Creative use of outdoor spaces for dining and customer seating, perhaps even spaces not previously considered, will definitely make a difference in jump-starting revenue for struggling restaurants and businesses upon reopening,” says Bonnie Flinner, owner of Prosperity Social Club in Tremont. “Owners need to think out of the box and the city needs to be flexible and proactive with accommodating new needs while balancing safety. Hopefully Mother Nature will be on our side!”
Juan Vergara, who operates Hola Tacos and Barroco, says that more room to spread out would not only help his bottom line, but also the safety of his staff and customers.
“It would definitely help out,” says Vergara. “I could be wrong, but it could be a great alternative to not opening dining rooms sooner and risking a greater spread of the virus while keeping staff at least a bit more safe. And at the same time we all get to enjoy the summer that we have all been waiting for.”
Echoing that sentiment is Eric Ho, partner in LBM in Lakewood. “I mean for us at LBM it would absolutely help," he says. "We're particularly small so when following CDC social distancing guidelines we'll go down to three tables and 6-8 bar seats. Maybe 20 people including staff safely. At even half capacity we would need to be completely full at all hours to break even."
The good news is that efforts already are underway to do just that.
“The idea of reclaiming our streets for non-vehicular use has been something I’ve been passionate about and banging the table about for a while, even before COVID,” says Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack. “We need to do everything we can to support our local small businesses and part of that will be closing down streets in commercial corridors with the understanding that in the process we need to be thoughtful about ADA and transit so that we’re not disadvantaging people.”
McCormack says that discussions with local CDCs in neighborhoods like Ohio City, Tremont, Downtown and elsewhere are moving forward to identify possible zones where this makes sense. A committee will develop one set of standards for closing a street so that it’s uniform across the board, lessons learned from the 3-month closure of Market Avenue in Ohio City that ended despite near-universal appeal.
“The issue there is that there hadn’t been a thorough, streamlined plan in place, which created friction,” says the councilman.
After getting all the ducks in a row and reaching out to key city officials, the group would also need to get the state on board with respect to liquor licensing and permitting.
“Can we get the state to issue temporary permits to these designated zones to allow for temporary outdoor service of alcohol,” McCormack asks. “I have no doubt that if we can get to the Governor and say, this is really important and we need this, I think he seems like he’d be open to it.”
As for seemingly lower-hanging fruit like sidewalks, parklets and parking lots, McCormack says that all proposals should be on the table, but nothing short of bold action will be enough to save the restaurant industry.
“What is the point of having vehicular access if we don’t have any small businesses left for people to go to,” he argues. “We have to get out of this mindset of, the car must go everywhere. We need to be thoughtful about prioritizing our small business and our people-friendly spaces. If we don’t get creative and embrace these new ideas, we could be looking at losing a significant amount of our small local businesses. This is necessary.”
Ushabu in Tremont has just 25 seats, but it enjoys a wide, tranquil sidewalk just outside its front door that would make a great patio. Owner Matt Spinner says that he would immediately make use of it if given the go-ahead.
“I don’t think there is a single line item from an operational side that makes the difference between life and death of our business, but if the city could use this time of social distancing to streamline the red tape and potential regulations of their patio law, that could change the landscape of al fresco dining in the city for the future, and for the better. Easing regulations regarding space and permanence of fencing would allow a great many of us to begin a buildout immediately, especially those of us with ample space who have had trouble navigating the maze that is city hall.”