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Cities Are Letting Restaurants Set Up Tables In Streets And Parking Lots To Ease Virus Restrictions

May 25, 2020

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.