JW’s Food & Spirits had never offered outdoor seating in the more than two decades the restaurant and bar has been in operation at the corner of North 7th Street and Washington Avenue east of downtown Grand Haven.
That all changed this year when 50-percent capacity restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic forced owner Chris Weavers to get creative in finding a pathway to remaining profitable.
The Grand Haven establishment took advantage of the city’s new social zone program that allows businesses to use outdoor space such as sidewalks, parking lots and parts of city streets for their operations. JW’s now has nine outside tables in an area the city assisted in blocking off with concrete barriers.
“This is going to more than make up for the 50-percent capacity (restriction) and it’s just a fun, exciting atmosphere,” Weavers said. “My dining room is quite small. Without this outdoor seating, it would have been impossible to turn a profit.”
Many cities across West Michigan are working with businesses to temporarily close some downtown streets to create social zones, a move that allows for more outdoor seating at restaurants and bars that are grappling with reopening under 50-percent capacity constraints.
Social zones also make it easier for those businesses to extend their operations into other types of public spaces, including parks, parking spaces and sidewalks.
The social zones are intended to give the businesses a way to increase the number of patrons they can serve under the new capacity restrictions and requirements that tables be spaced six feet apart to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
Traverse City was among the first to close down streets to make room for more outdoor dining space when bars and restaurants in parts of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula reopened for dine-in service on May 22.
Now that restaurants and bars statewide have been able to open since June 8, communities are considering various approaches to rolling out social zones, with some municipalities taking quicker action than others.
Among West Michigan cities, Grand Haven was an early adopter in the push to create social zones, ease the permitting process for outdoor seating and close streets to expand dining space. The zones also can benefit retailers, who face similar restrictions on the number of people who are allowed into their stores to ensure proper social distancing among customers.
“We got out in front of it and got the public hearing process done in May to steamroll that stuff out of the way, so now this problem is dealt with administratively to grant permission,” Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis said of the process for approving social zones.
The process typically takes about 24 hours for a business to get approval. The Grand Haven City Council approved a resolution that requires the approval from McGinnis, the police chief and the public works department for requests related to social zones.
The city streamlined the application process to one page where a business has to show proof of insurance, promise to keep the space clean and follow CDC guidelines like wearing masks and social distancing. Fees have been removed for businesses to apply for the additional outdoor space.
“The city has been very accommodating,” JW’s owner Weavers said. “They approved my outdoor seating permit within hours, and I applied to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to get my alcohol permit (for outdoor dining), and in less than a week’s turnaround, I had approval for both.”
As this report went to press, downtown Grand Rapids’ first social zone was set to take shape along Monroe Center St. NW between Pearl Street and Ionia Avenue.
“What we’re doing is providing one of the few things we can actually provide, which is more space in a time period when people need more space because of the restrictions,” said Mark Miller, managing director of planning and design at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.
Expanding seating space for restaurants, bars and coffee shops has been the focus in Grand Rapids, but the social zones also are meant to assist retail shops in allowing sidewalk sales, Miller said.
As well, gyms are included in social zones to allow for the possibility of conducting outdoor classes without the usual and more time-consuming process of applying for permits. All a business has to do is make a call to the City of Grand Rapids Parks Department to hold events like outdoor fitness or yoga classes.
“We think about these things as a very flexible use of public space. It will probably ebb and flow as the process develops,” Miller said. “Most importantly, we hope that our businesses will start to recover a little bit.”
The city commission passed a resolution to allow for the formation of social zones throughout the city from June 1 to Nov. 30, which could end up being extended, according to Miller. The zones would allow for outdoor dining and the consumption of alcohol in designated areas if it’s purchased from a restaurant that has a license to sell beer or wine.
Some establishments have liquor licenses that only allow for to-go sales of canned beer or wine, but a person could buy a sealed container of alcohol and consume it in a designated social zone, Miller added.
“It’s all dependent on the license the restaurant or bar has with the state,” Miller said. “We’re leaving a lot of stuff up to business owners because they know their clientele.”
Eager to act
In Grand Haven, the two major street closures so far include parts of Washington Avenue downtown, including in front of Odd Side Ales. The city also blocked street parking in front of JW’s and Stanz Cafe.
“We think people can come here and eat dinner and have cocktails in a safe way and stay outdoors and stay six feet apart from others,” said McGinnis, the Grand Haven City Manager. “Their space inside got cut in half, so their space outside tripled.”
Thirty parking spots out of 1,400 have been closed in downtown Grand Haven to accommodate the social zone program, McGinnis said. While that’s not a huge loss, some customers might have to walk an extra block to their destination, he added.
In addition to Grand Haven, lakeshore communities including Holland and Zeeland also streamlined the permitting process for restaurants and retailers to expand outdoor seating.
Knowing more customers will feel comfortable eating outside, Holland restaurant owners were eager to add outdoor seating, said Downtown Holland Marketing Coordinator Kara de Alvare.
“Essentially any restaurant that already had outdoor seating, we allowed them to fill out a really simple form to use parking spaces in front of their business (for dining space),” de Alvare said. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible.”
The city approved the process before sending applications to downtown businesses, so they basically could opt in by filling out the form.
While some retail shops signed up, most were waiting to evaluate their business for the first few weeks after reopening. However, “restaurants were very eager” to expand dining outside, de Alvare said.
Hops at 84 East, The Curragh Irish Pub and City Delicatessen are among restaurants that expanded seating on sidewalks and in parking lots in front of their businesses.
In Zeeland, restaurants and businesses have gradually expressed interest in expanding operations outside of their four walls, said City of Zeeland Marketing Director Abigail de Roo.
So far, the Mainstreet Beanery coffee shop has been approved for additional seating on the sidewalk, along with Don’s Flowers & Gifts. Zeeland has implemented a similar streamlined structure as neighboring municipalities, with no fees for businesses to apply for expanded operations.
The Zeeland City Council on June 15 also authorized the temporary closure of parts of Main Avenue for potential future use by downtown restaurants and retailers.
“We don’t know yet that we have enough businesses to take up that space in the street,” de Roo said. “I imagine we might grow into that plan. As confidence with consumers returns, we’ll see more demands for seating.”
Tripelroot brewpub owner Laura Gentry said closing part of Main Avenue would make customers feel safer if she were to expand seating onto the sidewalk or the parking spaces in front of her business.
“We are a family-friendly place, so I don’t think parents will want to sit right out by the street with cars driving past unless it’s closed off,” Gentry said.
Tripelroot used to have community seating with long tables where people from different parties would sit next to one another. The setting helped form the atmosphere Tripelroot is known for, Gentry said, but the pub had to reformat its space because of COVID-19.
Since Tripelroot reopened, it has not yet reached 50 percent capacity. Even so, Gentry remains optimistic outdoor seating could improve business.
“That’s really exciting because it would give restaurants a better space and better area that would be new to customers,” she said.
The city of Grand Rapids has approached social zones by allowing an organization to apply for permits on behalf of the businesses located in designated areas. For example, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. applied for the zone in the downtown district. Miller of DGRI said other neighborhoods like Uptown and Eastown are in the process of considering how to implement social zones in their areas as well.
“These social zones are encroaching into public space, and that public space could be streets, sidewalks, parks and city-owned parking lots,” Miller said. “Any of those things are open to potential expansion into them. But it’s not an individual doing it, it’s an organization.”
DGRI has taken the initiative to work closely with the city and business owners to apply for permits and organize downtown into four different areas — Bridge Street, Center City, Heartside and Monroe North — where there will be some sort of social zone.
Other potential temporary street closures could include half of Ionia Avenue to still allow for one-way traffic, part of Bridge Street, and Sheldon Street bordering the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and The Apartment Lounge. The museum has plans for a soft reopening that includes outdoor displays, Miller said.
The Heartside zone will probably include closing parking spaces in front of the Pyramid Scheme. Co-owner Tami VandenBerg previously told MiBiz that reopening the Pyramid Scheme — which is closed currently — would not be sustainable long term under capacity restrictions, partly because it has no outdoor seating.
DGRI has come up with an operational plan for each zone, how the areas will be cleaned and when the zones will be deployed, Miller said. The downtown group purchased 200 tables and about 700 chairs to provide businesses with extra infrastructure so they would not have to buy it all, Miller said. They are also in the process of purchasing more concrete barriers to temporarily shut down streets.
Some restaurants have requested more of an open seating food hall situation, Miller said, while others have a more specific, controlled experience in mind with table service from the time customers sit down to the time they leave.
“For us and for the city, this is really largely an iterative process,” Miller said. “We’re going to close some of these areas in phase one, see what happens, figure out is there demand for this, and we’ll come back and sort of do a phase two. It’s almost like a real-time experiment to figure out what to do.”
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