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Rochester, Hills take action to support outdoor dining

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published June 11, 2020

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As of June 8, bars and restaurants started serving dine-in customers for the first time in nearly three months, but many business owners are concerned customers won’t want to return to restaurants until COVID-19 is more contained.

In response, municipalities across the region — including Rochester and Rochester Hills — are quickly making temporary ordinance changes to help businesses get back up and running.

The Rochester City Council altered rules to temporarily allow restaurants and cafes to adjust and expand outdoor dining spaces on city sidewalks, alleys and streets. The council unanimously passed the motion June 8.

“We don’t have any more time to waste on this. We have to get them (restaurants) fully functioning so we don’t lose our downtown,” Councilwoman Ann Peterson said during the meeting.

At press time, Rochester Downtown Development Authority Director Kristi Trevarrow said restaurants throughout Michigan could only seat 50% of their dining room to allow for social distancing, due to state restrictions. However, she said the Michigan Liquor Control Commission is allowing restaurants that serve alcohol to apply for a license to extend their existing liquor license outside in an effort to bring in more cash. 

“That’s why a lot of them are looking for outdoor opportunities, because as long as they have social distance, they can put as many tables as they want outside, and it doesn’t count toward their indoor capacity,” Trevarrow explained.

The city was hoping to assist merchants by expanding outdoor dining into platforms in the parking spaces along Main Street, an idea that was shot down by the Michigan Department of Transportation. 

“MDOT is not allowing outdoor dining on Main Street, but we’re working on the side streets,” Trevarrow said.

Many of the businesses along Main Street, she said, have areas outside their back doors in the alleys that could instead be used for additional outdoor seating. 

“We’re trying to put together a mini grant program, much like the Main Street Makeover, where they could apply for a grant to purchase furnishing — tables, chairs, things like that,” she said.

The Rochester Hills City Council also recently passed a new permit process to allow for expanded outdoor operations, new temporary sign standards and expanded options to provide for outdoor seating.

Under the new changes, food and drink establishments in Rochester Hills may temporarily add or expand an outdoor dining area with seating up to 75% of their current lawful interior seating capacity. Temporary new or expanded areas shall be designed and laid out to meet applicable social distancing guidelines. Retailers and other commercial businesses will also be able to expand some of their operations outdoors. Rochester Hills businesses interested in taking advantage of the new program can learn more at www.rochesterhills.org.

“Unusual circumstances, like the COVID-19 pandemic, require cities to think creatively and take bold action to support the local businesses who have always supported our community,” Mayor Bryan Barnett said in a statement. “I am proud of the steps the Rochester Hills City Council has taken to help our local business be successful in this new environment.”

Rochester Hills also began offering small business owners, nonprofits and faith-based leaders curbside pickup for ReOpen Kits — which include materials and guidelines to help resume activities safely during the pandemic — on Friday, June 5. The number of kits is limited, so interested groups must fill out the form at https://forms.oakgov.com/151 to schedule a pickup.

While COVID-19 has brought much disruption to the city’s business community, Rochester Hills Economic Manager Pamela Valentik said it has also brought new opportunities. 

“As we move forward, we will continue to promote local and help them support their workforce needs,” Valentik said in a statement.

Call Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at (586) 498-1060.

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