Cities let restaurants set up in streets to ease Covid-19 restrictions

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Forbici Modern Italian’s temporary outdoor dining tent in Tampa, Florida.

Forbici Modern Italian

There’s not usually a white 1,800-square-foot tent set up in the street outside Forbici Modern Italian in Tampa, Florida. Then again, few things are as they were before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Tampa’s Snow Avenue embodies that new world, thanks to a pilot program created by the city that makes it easier for restaurants to set up tables outside — on certain streets, sidewalks or in their parking lots. 

The goal: Let restaurants and other retail establishments expand service and keep tables 6 feet apart, while still complying with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ state-level orders that initially allowed for only 25% indoor capacity.

“That was a losing proposition,” Forbici co-owner Jeff Gigante said of the indoor restrictions. But the 72 seats that now exist on Snow Avenue? “That’s a life saver for us.”  

Tampa is not alone. A growing number of cities, from Cincinnati to the Atlanta suburbs, are taking space not usually allocated for dining and simplifying the process for restaurants to put it to use. In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order to streamline permitting for outdoor dining.

Boston announced similar changes Thursday, and proposals have popped up in cities across California’s Bay Area

“If we’re going to continue our great renaissance as a city, we’re going to have to open up more streets and public space to restaurants or … they’re not going to survive,” said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

The economics of reopening

Restaurants are a low-margin business, even when dining rooms can be filled to maximum occupancy. But now, in many cities and states where indoor dining is allowed again, restaurants must operate with reduced capacity — often 25% to start.

While this is done with public health in mind to allow for social distancing, it complicates the economic picture for many restaurant owners as they decide whether to reopen their dining rooms. 

Gigante’s Forbici Modern Italian had continued to offer takeout after DeSantis suspended on-premise dining in March. On May 4, restaurants in most of the state were able to resume dine-in service, capped at 25% capacity inside along with other safety precautions. 

Forbici had an existing sidewalk patio to supplement the limited indoor tables. But Gigante said it still would be equivalent to less than half of the restaurant’s pre-pandemic capacity. 

“Running a business at half capacity gives you half revenue and you still have to staff it as if you’re at full revenue,” said Gigante.

The tables housed under the on-street tent means Forbici’s capacity is closer to normal levels. Plus, this week, restaurants were allowed to expand to 50% indoor capacity.

Tampa’s pilot program, initially set for two weeks, will continue in modified form, Mayor Jane Castor said in an interview.

Some streets that there were barricaded will no longer be closed off. Others, such as the stretch near Forbici, will remain closed, and the city continues to encourage businesses to utilize parking lots for outdoor service. 

Castor’s executive order to create the program essentially suspends certain city code and permit requirements that pertained to outdoor dining, making it easier for restaurants to start offering it.

People gather for food and drinks in the Over-the-Rhine District as restaurants and bars begin to reopen in the wake of the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, on May 16, 2020, in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States.

Jason Whitman | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Cincinnati’s program, for example, allows restaurants to apply for expedited permitting to set up temporary outdoor tables. Cranley said the street closures will be phased in over the next few weeks as restaurants develop operating plans and apply for permits. 

Ohio restaurants began offering outdoor dining last Friday. And on Thursday, indoor seating resumed with restrictions

Health considerations

A key reason for the push to expand outdoor dining: the belief that the risk of infection from Covid-19 is lower when you’re outside than being inside. Early studies, particularly one examining outbreaks in China, seem to support this belief.

Dr. Jonathan Temte, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, stressed there has not been a definitive scientific conclusion reached about the outdoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

But there are “supporting concepts” around other viruses that back up the idea that transmission risk is lower outdoors, as long as people take precautions, said Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the university’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

People should not forget about social distancing just because they happen to be outside, he said. For example, he said standing in an airport security line right now, even if it were moved outdoors, “would be a problem.” 

“It has to do with the proximity to other people and the time that you’re in that proximity,” Temte said. 

Indeed, the mayors of Tampa and Cincinnati said they had concerns that people would start to gather outdoors.  

Castor said Tampa has tried to avoid this by mandating restaurants serve customers by reservation only for the tables set up outdoors. “We can’t have people congregating, waiting on a table. They need to know where they’re going and what time they’re going,” said Castor, who added the city also has a policy of “no seat, no service.” 

The comfort factor 

The expansion of outdoor service may address one of the central questions that lingers as states ease restrictions on businesses: If you open it, will customers come? 

Catherine Manabat, co-owner of HomeMakers Bar in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, said its craft cocktail bar has pivoted to takeout and she has tried other ways to serve their customers, such as video tutorials, during the pandemic. 

She said plans for restarting dine-in service are still being worked out — where tables would go, the logistics of serving customers. But HomeMakers Bar is in one of the city’s designated areas for the outdoor street dining program, which is a consideration as it plans for reopening, Manabat said. 

Manabat said she is always focused on making sure customers feel comfortable at HomeMakers, a goal that takes an added significance during a public health crisis. 

“We didn’t have outdoor seating prior to this, so that just gives a lot more range and option to be able to provide that comfort and safety,” Manabat said. 

Forbici’s Gigante said he believes the option to sit outside does give some customers an extra layer of comfort, making them more willing to patronize businesses. In the days before Florida’s restrictions went into effect, he had started noticing fewer people wanted to sit inside.

“We didn’t allow outside to be booked on OpenTable, so they were all calling and saying, ‘I’ve got a reservation inside. Can we sit on the patio?” Gigante said. “And now with this beautiful tent, it’s the same way. People all want to sit outside.” 

Not the ‘cure-all solution’ 

Mike Whatley, vice president of state and local affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said the expansion of outdoor dining is a “positive short-term idea.” But he said it alone won’t be enough to help the hard-hit industry, which saw around 5.5 million people lose employment in April, recover from the coronavirus pandemic. 

“With summer comes thunderstorms and extremely hot weather and many restaurants may not currently have the equipment for umbrellas or outdoor seats,” Whatley said. “There are some who are doing it, and it’s great. But this by no means a cure-all solution that’s going to fix all the industry’s woes.” 

He said governments can assist restaurants by continuing to allow the to-go sale of alcohol, even when the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak appears to be over. More than half of the U.S. states have already relaxed restrictions, he said. 

“That’s been a lifeline to operators,” said Whatley, but he argued that more government assistance at the federal and local level is necessary to help weather a crisis facing restaurants “through no cause of our own.” 

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