Andrew Nichols, the manager of Market in downtown Birmingham, said the restaurant is grateful the City Commission is “working with restaurants to  make sure everyone  can get through the pandemic together.”

Andrew Nichols, the manager of Market in downtown Birmingham, said the restaurant is grateful the City Commission is “working with restaurants to make sure everyone can get through the pandemic together.”

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

Birmingham allows outdoor dining through winter

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 4, 2020


BIRMINGHAM — In hopes of giving Birmingham restaurants an advantage to keep business going during the COVID-19 pandemic — and with no indication that the virus will go away soon — the City Commission voted to allow eateries to continue to serve patrons outdoors into the winter months.

During the commission’s regularly scheduled virtual meeting Aug. 24, they unanimously approved a resolution that would extend the city’s temporary outdoor dining resolutions originally approved back in May.

The 2020 Limited Permanent Outdoor Service Permission Application allows restaurants to provide or expand outdoor seating areas temporarily to accommodate social distancing guidelines and assist businesses through the pandemic.

Any restaurant with outdoor space was able to not only operate throughout the summer but, if they were able, to temporarily expand their outdoor dining quarters beyond their usual perimeter to add any seats that might’ve been lost in their indoor dining space due to the state of Michigan’s social distancing mandate.

Merchants still needed to apply for permits and adhere to city ordinances, but fees for those services were waived during the crisis. Without an extension, that resolution would have expired at the end of October and restaurants would have been required to put outdoor serving amenities away for the season or bring them inside each night and back out daily.

If diners are going to be comfortable eating outdoors in the winter, the setup would have to be considerately more involved than just a simple table and chairs. Birmingham City Manager Joe Valentine proposed to the commission that the temporary resolution be extended into the winter months so merchants can invest in a short-term enclosure of their choosing to keep customers warm, including perhaps an overhead covering, heat lamps or tenting.

“It makes some sense to let the outdoor dining continue into the winter season with some enclosure system,” Planning Director Jana Ecker explained. “They would still have to apply for approval. There’s no charge for administrative approval. There’s still the same limits on seating: If you’re losing 30 seats inside, you can have 30 seats outside and spread them out. … Right now, we expect (the Michigan Liquor Control Commission) to expand their regulations through the end of the year, because there’s no indication this pandemic is going away anytime soon.”

Ecker said the enclosures restaurants could create could not be free standing, but rather extensions of the existing business. While materials do not have to be specific, they do have to be up to code and approved by the Fire Department and city ordinance enforcement.

“You would have to meet certain standards. The materials have to be nonflammable. There’s no specific requirement that coverings must be metal or flame-retardant plastic, but for instance, you couldn’t just run to Target and pick up some velvet curtains,” Ecker said.

Mayor Pierre Boutros kicked off discussions on the resolution with a general nod of confidence in the move.

“We’re just extending the term. That’s basically it,” he said. “It’s part of an ongoing effort to help our restaurants and establishments to survive.”

Commissioner Clinton Baller asked whether bistros were being afforded an unfair advantage with the aid. Annually, the city issues a limited number of liquor licenses to establishments that operate as smaller, food-focused businesses with 65-seats indoors and 10 seats at the bar. In exchange for steering clear of the bar scene, owners can obtain a Class C liquor license at a fraction of the regular quota license price.

“Because of COVID, are we expanding what it means to be a bistro,” Baller asked. “I’ve had one proprietor of a legacy establishment with a Class C license come to me, and he’s just concerned we’re giving the bistros an unfair advantage, and I think we should consider that.”

Ecker acknowledged that the resolution does in fact expand seating outdoors for bistros in a way that wouldn’t happen if the virus weren’t around. But she reminded commissioners that the resolution is a temporary measure and that the aid applies to all restaurants, not just bistros.

Commissioner Rackeline Hoff wondered why the extension would last through the spring and not the end of the year.

Valentine said it would benefit merchants more if they could leave up their enclosure as long as possible to bring in at least the revenue that was invested to erect the structure. If not, the incentive wouldn’t likely be there to have outdoor dining in the first place if restaurants could only serve for about two months.

In a survey conducted by the city, 15 of 17 restaurants said they would be interested in participating in an outdoor dining initiative.

To further answer Hoff’s question, Ecker reminded the commission that the temporary resolutions were just that: temporary.

“So if, for instance, everything goes back to normal by Thanksgiving and all of a sudden the virus goes away and we don’t have this concern anymore, the city can rescind any previous resolutions,” she said.

With questions answered, the commission moved to approve Birmingham’s first-ever outdoor dining season in the name of supporting local restaurants.

“The more options we can give our businesses, the better off we are,” said Commissioner Stuart Sherman. “We have a responsibility to do what we can to assist in the current pandemic.