After the city helped other small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through a grant program, Mobile officials now want to help restaurants by allowing for more outdoor seating.
In an executive order, approved by members of the Mobile City Council at its regular meeting Tuesday, the city will allow restaurants to place seating in metered parking spaces, establishment-owned parking lots and portions of the city’s rights-of-way to abide by social distancing restrictions put in place by Gov. Kay Ivey in her May 8 health order, Deputy City Attorney Florence Kessler said.
“With the order requiring patrons stay six feet apart and allowing no more than eight people at a table, that automatically reduces a restaurant’s capacity,” she said. “The city contacted restaurants and bars to see how we could increase seating capacity.”
The answer, Kessler said, was to allow more seating on sidewalks, metered parking spots and parking lots. The temporary action applies citywide and would allow the establishments to expand into large, shopping center parking lots and put up tents as well.
“The idea was to replace indoor seating with additional outdoor seating,” Kessler said.
Currently some restaurants in the downtown entertainment zones are allowed to place seating on sidewalks, but this would expand that and applies to all restaurants and bars citywide. The action would allow these establishments to serve alcohol outdoors as well.
“The [Alabama Beverage Control] license extends to all areas where a restaurant is allowed to serve,” Kessler said.
The action originally would only be in place until Ivey either rescinded or extended her May 8 order, or if it simply expired. However, councilors reached a consensus to allow the city’s establishments to follow the outdoor seating guidelines for up to a month after Ivey’s order expires.
The debate over how long the action should remain in place sparked a discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic and a push by some to reopen the state’s economy. Council President Levon Manzie said he and many in his community would not feel comfortable going out to eat at a restaurant immediately, no matter what Ivey allowed in her order. Manzie argued that, at least in Mobile, “the curve is not flattening,” referring to the infection rate and the rate at which patients would need hospital beds.
“Mobile is still a hotbed,” he said. “Let’s treat it like a hotbed.”
As of last week, local hospital officials seemed confident the area would not run out of beds, despite Mobile County having the highest number of infections and virus-related deaths statewide.
“There’s this push to get the economic engine going,” Manzie said. “Until I’m confident, I’m going to be eating at home. I’m not going into a lot of these restaurants like the pandemic isn’t a big deal.”
At the meeting, Mayor Sandy Stimpson confirmed through information from local test maker Synergy Laboratories that over the last week roughly 30 people per day have tested positive for COVID-19. Part of the reason for that, Stimpson said, was because the city testing sites were now testing those patients going in for elective surgeries. Testing capacity has increased as well, Stimpson said.
Councilwoman Bess Rich argued the purchasing of tents would be an expense to the owners and could be a waste if they approved the action and Ivey then lifted the restrictions before it could be used.
Restaurants and bars interested in expanding outdoor seating will need to apply and present a site plan, Kessler said.
“The applicant will have to show a fire safety plan [for the tents],” she said. “The applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”
In other business, the council approved an ordinance that would allow residents to park cars in yards without a city business license within a mile of Ladd-Peebles Stadium or a Mardi Gras parade route during Carnival season.
A previous iteration of the ordinance in question included only football games at the stadium, but council attorney Chris Arledge told councilors more events were added.
“We added sporting events, special events and concerts in case they change the scope of what they’re doing there,” he said.
The council also unanimously denied the appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision to reject an increase in the allowed occupancy at 401 Dauphin Street. Building owner Buzz Jordan had asked the council to review the decision to deny his application to allow an occupancy rate of 750 for a proposed music venue.
Rich, who is the council’s representative on the Planning Commission, said she believed the denial was not arbitrary or capricious.
“This topic when it came to the Planning Commission, it was very well debated and it was very well thought out,” she said. “The commission heard from all sides. Both nearby neighbors and the church were concerned and those concerns were valid.”
Councilman Joel Daves agreed with Rich. He said after reviewing the documentation he couldn’t find that the commission’s decision was arbitrary or capricious, which is what a successful appeal requires. Manzie, who represents the downtown area on the council, said he was siding with neighbors in denying the appeal.
Councilman John Williams agreed that the commission’s decision was not arbitrary, but he showed support for the project overall.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I think it would’ve been a good project.”
Councilors at a pre-conference meeting acknowledged the immense interest the project had brought about.
“We have heard from everyone from the archbishop on down,” Manzie said. “I know I have. I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping it over the last week.”
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