Plain City restaurants could soon have extended outdoor dining spaces, as council considers options to help owners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Monday’s council meeting, Tim Dawson, owner of Pioneer Pizza and The Grainery, asked the village to “start taking a proactive approach” in providing assistance for restaurants.
He said he would like council to consider allowing restaurants to use areas in the public right-of-way, such as the alley behind The Grainery, to set up tents for outdoor dining space.
During the fall months, Dawson also asked if there was a way to work with the fire department to determine what heat sources are permitted in tented areas.
He said he was speaking on behalf of “all the restaurants, whoever wants to do something like this.”
There appeared to be greater interest in taking advantage of a similar initiative, as Penny Schuenke, night manager at Lee’s Sports and Spirits, said she would also like to be able to set up tables in the alley adjacent to the building.
Dawson said he knows there is a process to apply for the use of public space for “one-off” events, but wondered if the village could permit use for the “entirety of the fall.”
Village Administrator Nathan Cahall said council could declare “some sort of moratorium” that would suspend current rules for public property use. Before doing so, he said council and village staff need to investigate what locations are best suited for public dining areas.
He said staff should consider how restaurant operations will be affected, especially regarding expansion of the liquor license area, as well as public safety.
Namely, he said any action by council needs to ensure “equal protection for everyone involved.”
Dawson said he believes temporary expansions of liquor license areas are only permitted by the state if businesses first have approval from the village and the local health department.
Because of this, he said he felt the village should assist local restaurant owners, as he has seen done by nearby municipalities.
“There’s no one that has been penalized more than the restaurant industry and we are suffering,” Dawson said.
He said he is on the Union County Convention and Visitors Bureau Board and saw the City of Marysville provide public areas for dining, including picnic tables. As the fall approaches, he said he anticipates Marysville allowing for tents and “some type of heat.”
Council member Shannon Pine said she felt it would be helpful to investigate other communities’, like Marysville’s, regulations for outdoor dining before crafting them for Plain City.
Council member Frank Reed said he wasn’t opposed to allowing restaurants to extend their dining space, but asked for a written proposal from Dawson “outlining what’s going to happen.”
However, Council member Sherry Heineman said she felt it was clear Dawson was asking for permission to use a tent in the alley behind his business.
Beyond that, she said “he needs it pretty quick,” and worried there may not be time for Dawson to write a proposal and go through the usual three readings at council.
Dawson agreed, adding, “The ability to act quickly in these situations is so critical.” He said he was “not asking for any special favors,” but wanted to explore any options available to him and other restaurant owners.
Council member Darren Lee said he didn’t see any issues with it, but asked Dawson to simply provide council with information as to where he would like the tent to be placed and a timeline for its use.
“I think we should do whatever we can to assist our restaurateurs however we can,” Lee said.
Still, Council member John Rucker urged the board to create specific guidelines before making any allowances.
“I don’t want to be writing blank checks,” he said.
Lee said it could be possible to allow restaurants to extend their dining areas during the COVID-19 pandemic, under a 30-day rolling renewal process.
Ultimately, though, council felt staff needed to consult with legal counsel and explore options before creating any legislation.
Council will discuss the issue during a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23, during which the board will also address desired Uptown improvements. Council will begin with a walk-through of the Uptown district and then continue the discussion in-person, although members of the public will also be able to access the meeting online.
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