With customers looking to social-distance and avoid indoor gatherings, Oxford is allowing its businesses to expand outdoor dining areas. Businesses can apply to extend patios or set up tables on nearby sidewalks and alleys.
“We’re willing to get creative and think with business owners,” Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene said. “When someone has an idea they want to try, we’ll explore it with them.”
Businesses looking to expand their dining spaces outdoors must fill out a formal application for a Public Right-of-Way permit. The city reviews the submission for safety, accessibility and traffic. A safety plan is also required for approval.
Greene said Fiesta Charra, 25 W. High St., was one of the businesses that advocated most strongly for the extended patio-area permits. Fiesta Charra has since started using the alley adjacent to the restaurant as an outdoor dining area.
Manager Jose Gonzalez said Fiesta Charra was eager to expand seating into the alley next to the restaurant. “A lot of people don’t like (eating) inside because of COVID-19,” Gonzalez said. “I’m happy (about the outdoor seating).”
Oxford City Councilor David Prytherch said the expanded outdoor dining zones will help local businesses endure the economic difficulty caused by COVID-19. “People have concerns about indoor dining and seating,” Prytherch said. “The more we can help expand the outdoor footprint of our business, the better our businesses will weather tough times.”
The expanded dining areas allow the restaurant to sell alcohol as long as they get approval from The Ohio Department of Liquor Control. “We had the partnership of the Ohio Liquor Control,” Greene said. “Normally to expand your patio area outside it’s kind of a process to get Ohio Liquor Control to approve it… But what they’ve done during the coronavirus is say ‘if your local municipality has approved this then we’ll partner with you too.’”
Ann Kamphaus, owner/operator at Books & Brews, 107 E. Church St., said she tried expanding their outdoor dining area, but space limitations made it difficult. Books & Brews plans to use its expanded zone for a Kentucky Derby event. “We have a derby party scheduled and we’re selling reserved tables for 10 so we’ll probably use it that day,” Kamphaus said.
One idea to help Uptown businesses was to close down High Street to vehicles and allow restaurants to put tables outdoors, as the city did for Red Brick Friday DORA (Designated Uptown Refreshment Area) over the summer. The city halted its Uptown DORA before Miami University students returned for the semester. Greene said she surveyed local businesses to see if there was interest in that idea. Most respondents said there wasn’t interest in continuing a Red Brick Friday event unless the DORA continued.
Kamphaus said she answered that she wouldn’t be interested in an event like Red Brick Friday without the DORA on her survey. “Unless you do it in conjunction with the DORA, it only benefits (restaurants on High Street),” Kamphaus said. Books & Brews, located on Church Street, wouldn’t be able to set up tables in the street and it would not be able to sell alcohol to walkers without the DORA in place.
Prytherch expressed concerns about the optics of inviting people to gather Uptown during a pandemic. “There was some community concern about whether bringing people together in large groups Uptown could send mixed messages,” he said. “The benefit of the outdoor seating is that the seating outside is associated with the business, so it’s a bit more managed and supervised.”
“By expanding a patio area, it’s more controlled,” Greene said. “The restaurant is in charge of that area, people are seated versus the outdoor refreshment area, you could walk around with your beer or margarita or slushie.”
Since Miami students have returned to Oxford, the area has seen a spike in local COVID-19 cases, with Miami reporting 125 positive student tests as of Aug. 26. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, outdoor activities pose a lower risk than gathering indoors.