GRAND RAPIDS — As fall and winter weather approaches, city of Grand Rapids officials are examining ways to make outdoor seating that restaurants have relied on during the COVID-19 pandemic into a year-round option.
City staff are working on policies to help downtown businesses through the winter months as the pandemic continues into the months ahead. That includes examining how social zones — outdoor extensions of restaurants that serve food and alcohol — can operate in the winter.
“There’s growing interest in plans for winter activation and interest in reducing disruptions to patrons within outdoor dining areas,” said Grand Rapids development center manager Louis Canfield.
Factors to consider include snow removal, stormwater drainage needs, heat, and safety for patrons and businesses, Canfield said.
The city’s proposed recommendations — which have support from the Kent County Health Department — are expected to be considered by the City Commission on Sept. 29. Proposals include extending social zones with seasonal and public health-related modifications and extending outdoor temporary uses on private property as a public health measure.
The commission will consider a third recommendation to authorize outdoor wood fires on residential college and university campuses in order to encourage students to spend more time outdoors, Canfield explained.
“We’ll be having a multi-departmental onsite review of existing social zones and implementation of adjustments in early November,” Canfield said.
Grand Rapids’ social districts were first approved on July 21 for three separate designated drinking areas downtown and one on Wealthy Street. The districts are common areas where alcohol can be sold and consumed, building on outdoor social zones the city previously established downtown.
Social districts and zones are meant to help struggling restaurants during the pandemic that are limited to 50 percent capacity for dine-in services, and have already gone months of being shut down completely except for takeout. State legislation that passed this summer allows social districts until the end of 2024.
A social district was recently added on Wealthy Street, as well as a social zone on Fulton Street. The City Commission also voted at its Sept. 15 meeting to recommend five more establishments to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission for the use of social districts in the city.
The city has now approved 38 social district applications, and nearly all of them have gained the necessary subsequent approval from the MLCC, Canfield said.