With restaurants allowed to reopen, David Horn attempted to place a few tables and chairs for public seating and dining at the plaza surrounding Homewood City Hall.
The location was a problem, he said, and his request was shut down.
“I had seen other cities doing this in closing down streets and other areas to provide for restaurants to put out tables and create an open public space, but we haven’t gotten the green light on that yet,” said Horn, owner and operator of Soho Social.
Homewood is just one of a handful of cities around Alabama discussing what kind of access restaurants can have on public property, as many of them look to expand seating for dining al fresco.
The outdoor dining push during the coronavirus pandemic has become a nationwide issue with city leaders examining ways to get diners outside and eating in the open air. New York City is among the leaders with Mayor Bill DeBlasio pushing for the potential of more outdoor eateries on city roadways. Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority is outlining ways to expand outdoor dining when it comes to selling alcohol, and cities in Connecticut are exploring zoning changes to allow restaurants to have more outdoor seating.
In Melbourne, Florida, city officials have adopted small business incentives to let restaurants create or expand outdoor seating and eliminate fines for violating city codes. Florida officials have also urged restaurant owners to use as much outdoor space as possible to accommodate for the strict social distancing guidelines pushed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tampa has closed down city streets to accommodate more outdoor dining.
In Alabama, mild spring temperatures are ramping up demand for eating outdoors. It is also offering a bit of an economic lifeline for restauranteurs who are now just reopening after six weeks of closure during the pandemic.
“This time of the year is always popular for patio dining and many operators are taking advantage of the weather to allow for more tables and to alleviate any concerns a customer may have,” said Alison Ingle, spokeswoman with the Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association (ARHA).
Some cities are weighing how much public space to provide restaurants as more residents begin to venture out for dining. The Alabama State Health Order that went into effect on Monday allows indoor restaurants to provide dining as long as seating is separated by six feet, which is causing some eateries to move some of their tables outside.
The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board already allows restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages on approved patios. But in a guidance posted to the ARHA’s website, the ABC Board says it will allow temporary uses of adjacent parking lots for outdoor services as long as it’s authorized by local government leaders.
In Tuscaloosa and Auburn, city officials are open to considering requests from restauranteurs who may need more space for outdoor dining. Foley city officials are also anticipating more outdoor dining requests, and city officials are also open to requests for allowing more dining on public spaces. Decatur city officials would consider request on a case-by-case basis.
“We have to look at the individual restaurant and it depends on location and the cause and effect that allowing them to dine on the sidewalks will have,” said Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen. “We are willing to work with any small business to help them grow their business.”
Sidewalks and side streets
In Mobile, city officials are in discussions whether sidewalks, parks and side streets could be temporarily utilized for tables and chairs.
“I am hopeful there will be something we can offer them and, during these very perilous times, we need to support our downtown businesses as much as possible,” said Mobile City Council President Levon Manzie. He said that alleyways and streets are under consideration as possible temporary right-of-way options for outdoor dining.
“If that can be worked out logistically where it’s not an encumbrance to traffic and all safety hazards are mitigated, it can be considered,” he said.
Carol Hunter, spokeswoman with the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said that increasing outdoor seating capacity is one of her organization’s focuses as restaurants begin reopening through this week and next.
“The bigger question is ‘will customers come back?’” Hunter said. “We don’t know the answer. No one does. I suspect some customers are anxious to get back. Some are not ready. What we’re working on is creating a video and some messaging about the extra steps restaurants are taking now to make the experience as pleasant and as safe as we can make it.”
For restaurants operating on “razor thin” margins, offering outdoor dining helps eliminate any loss that could occur from a reduction of indoor seating because of social distancing. In addition, the move is psychological: People are less likely to fear sitting outside in the open air as they might be inside the interior of a restaurant building.
“We want to take advantage of outdoor spaces surrounding our restaurant to the best we can while maintaining the guidance provided to us,” said Bob Omainsky, president of Wintzell’s Oyster House with locations in downtown Mobile, west Mobile, Saraland, Leeds, Guntersville, and Montgomery.
He added, “You can imagine when your footprint gets cut in half to an already razor-thin margin. We’ll be challenged to grow the outside space of our restaurant which will be tough (to do) into the summer months when this (pandemic) continues on. We had a beautiful spring and I wish we could’ve utilized that.”
In Huntsville, the city and Downtown Huntsville Inc. are working together in placing picnic tables and accommodates for temporary eating areas within public spaces around the downtown area. The tables and chairs that are set up in public right-of-way on public sidewalks and parks can be utilized by anyone as a “pragmatic way to expand outdoor seating,” said Chad Emerson, president & CEO of Downtown Huntsville.
“We think the unique timing of this pandemic is that it allowed us to increase outdoor dining,” said Emerson. “If this was December, there would be no demand for anyone to eat outdoors. But if you’re in Mobile or Florida or another warmer climate, this could much more likely be a new normal for you.”
Emerson said the premise is “spot on” when it comes to social distancing and to keep crowds from congregating.
Alabama health experts agree, as long as restaurants are adhering to social distance guidelines within the outdoor patio areas.
“I do think outside is safer than being in a fixed space as long as a restaurant is ensuring that a table is 6 feet away from you,” said Dr. Ellen Eaton, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
Health experts believe outdoor areas with high degrees of ventilation are less likely to be dangerous areas for COVID-19 spread than the indoors.
Research last month in China showed that out of 318 COVID-19 outbreaks encompassing 1,245 confirmed cases across 120 cities, only one outbreak involving just two cases occurred in an outdoor environment.
Eaton said that restaurants need to make sure their outdoor dining areas are safe. She recommends that restaurants minimize shared condiments, clean tablecloths frequently, and encourage people to wear face coverings when they approach dining areas. Also, she said that restaurants with increase outdoor seating to be encouraged to utilize a reservation policy to avoid congregating.
“It is safer,” said Eaton. “But it’s not like being at home with your immediate family.”
Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department, said that eateries need to “comply with the recommendations” put forth within the state health order, but also encouraged outdoor dining while temperatures are moderate.
“We’re itching to get out and enjoy some sunshine,” she said.
Future of dining
James Boyce, a partner and executive chef with Boyce Restaurant Concepts – which includes Cotton Row, Commerce and Pane E Vino in Huntsville and Galley & Garden in Birmingham – said he plans on utilizing the outdoor dining options “to our maximum” while diners begin to return.
“It’s more important for people to feel confident in what we’re doing and sitting outside is an excellent option especially now with the weather not so scorching,” said Boyce.
He said that he believes the pandemic, and the restrictions of social distancing, “will change dining throughout the whole state if not the whole country” in which restaurants will be utilizing more than just their interior dining rooms.
Boyce said that in Huntsville, city officials have “given us the ability to use sidewalks for dining.” In Mobile, sidewalks throughout the downtown area are also peppered with tables and chairs for outdoor dining, and a law in 2017 allows the restaurants to serve wine and beer to people dining on the sidewalks.
“I don’t know how it will affect restaurants that do not have access to an outdoor patio,” said Boyce. “We’ll have to rely upon states and municipalities relaxing the laws that allows (outdoor dining) on sidewalks.”
In Homewood, Horn’s efforts to move some of his outdoor dining to the city’s plaza near City Hall could underscore some challenges facing restauranteurs seeking public spaces to expand their footprints.
The request for Soho Social was denied by the city’s mayor’s office because the plaza is viewed as a “wide open area” where cars drive through, according to chief of staff J.J. Bischoff. He said the tables and chairs would become an “attractive nuisance to children” and could become a liability.
“We want to give people more options for more space,” said Horn, whose restaurant abuts the city’s plaza. “It was about spreading out and having people enjoy themselves instead of (telling them) to ‘go back to your car and wait until your table is ready.’ I was trying to be accommodating.”
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