Cities allow expanded outdoor dining to help restaurants survive Covid-19

The city of Cleveland recently released its new outdoor dining guidelines and regulations for allowing restaurants to take over streets, parking spaces and parking lots to expand outdoor dining while keeping people safe during Covid-19.

By Lee Chilcote

Several cities in Northeast Ohio have relaxed regulations for outdoor dining during the pandemic, and while some venues aren’t sure if they need it yet given the fact that Covid-19 continues to dampen their draw, for others it may be a lifeline allowing them to stay open.

Amber Caldwell, manager of Fahrenheit in Tremont, says the restaurant expanded into its valet zone last weekend, creating four additional outdoor tables. Although it’s nice to have some extra seating, they haven’t needed it yet, because diners are still being cautious.

“These are trying times, and we’re all trying to survive,” she says. “It’s nice to have more options for people who are uncomfortable sitting inside.”

Yet for other businesses, additional outdoor seating is literally what’s keeping them alive. Tommy’s on Coventry recently became the first business to apply in Cleveland Heights, taking over the former Panini’s patio space and offering 70 more outdoor seats to patrons. Owner Tommy Fello says it’s kept him in business.

“I was actually going to close the restaurant on July 6th, because there wasn’t enough cash flow with curbside pickup to pay for operations,” he says. “At the last minute, we were able to cut a deal for the patio. In every survey we did, people said, ‘We love your food, and we’ll take curbside, but we’re not coming inside to eat yet.’ I was going to tell my guys, ‘Hey, let’s just cut our losses and go on unemployment.’”

“It’s going to be a shot in the arm, not only for us but for the business district,” he adds. “Outdoor dining helps us because it keeps the doors open, but it also generates traffic for the street.”

Tommy laughs at the many challenges he’s facing, including having to physically walk the food across the street. His restaurant is only open noon to 8 pm, and his servers use iPads to allow for minimal contact.

Tommy’s is the first applicant in Cleveland Heights so far. Lakewood’s ordinance has so far led to conditional use permits being granted to at least seven restaurants, including Melt Bar and Grilled, El Carnicero, Cleveland Vegan, Salt+, Harry Buffalo, Mahall’s 20 Lanes and Mars Bar. In Shaker Heights, the city has closed off Tuttle Road, one of the new streets in the Van Aken District, to set up more tables outside Market Hall, Mitchell’s Ice Cream and other venues. Euclid also has approved regulations for expanded outdoor dining.

According to the city of Cleveland, they have received 26 Temporary Expansion Area (TEA) applications so far, and approval letters were recently sent out to Trattoria, Mabels BBQ, the Treehouse, Rowley Inn, Fahrenheit, Nano Brew, Market Garden Brewery, Bar Cento, Dante, Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles, Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, Sweet Moses, Ohio City Inc., Flying Fig, Great Lakes Brewing Company and Market Avenue Wine Bar. An application by Saucy Brew Works was denied. Six more approvals will be sent out this week, and three more applications are under review.

The idea behind the TEA applications is to cut through the red tape. For example, to apply in Cleveland, restaurants only have to include a sketch of the proposed Temporary Expansion Area (TEA). It must have appropriate spacing requirements and a protective barrier structure if it’s in the right of way. For establishments to serve alcohol, approvals must also be obtained from the Ohio Division of Liquor Control.

The city may provide barriers for free to restaurants that wish to expand into parking spaces in front of their buildings or that wish to close the street, according to the application.  

Cleveland Heights’ TEA legislation allows for conditional use permits to be approved by the city manager, rather than going through the Planning Commission or Board of Zoning Appeals; waives the $75 charge to submit an application, as well as permit fees for fences; and waives the requirement that detailed drawings be submitted to the city’s Architectural Board of Review and simply requires a site plan and photos.

The city of Cleveland’s application divides the TEAs into four basic typologies: “modular parklets” that turn parking spaces into protected seating areas; “street closures – all hours” that close secondary streets like Market Avenue in Ohio City; “street closures” that close primary streets temporarily; and “eating plazas” where off-street parking lots and open spaces become dining areas.

The city reserves the right to deny any application due to safety or public health concerns. City officials also want to make sure the sidewalk area is not obstructed, and while there are no aesthetic requirements, they want them to be attractive (dress up your jersey barrier with flowers!).

In its application, the city calls out clusters of dining establishments, including AsiaTown, Shaker Square, West 25th Street, Hingetown, Public Square, Gordon Square, Little Italy, much of downtown including the Warehouse District and Gateway District, Kamms Corners, Larchmere, and Waterloo. However, restaurants don’t have to be in one of these districts to apply for expanded outdoor dining.

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