Salt Lake City restaurants, shops cheer as mayor allows them to expand into parking areas, side yards during coronavirus

Dining or shopping in an off-street parking area or side yard may be more common this summer in Salt Lake City after Mayor Erin Mendenhall waived regulations this week that prevent outdoor activities on private property.

Under a proclamation issued Thursday evening, owners of restaurants and other retail shops can apply for a permit that would allow them to “operate outside on their own private property, or adjacent city-owned property” including off-street parking areas and private yards.

Businesses must keep a minimum 6-foot passageway for pedestrians on the sidewalk, the order says.

The temporary change is an economic one while the city is under COVID-19 restrictions, Mendenhall said in a news release. It is designed to help businesses “increase their ability to serve their customers, while still ensuring distancing guidelines are kept during these summer months.”

While it applies to all retail businesses, the mayor’s proclamation is especially beneficial for restaurants with space to expand their dining footprint, said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance.

“To achieve physical distance standards between diners, restaurants have reduced their guest capacity by 40% to 70%,” he said. “We are hopeful that many restaurants can expand their safe seating under these new provisions.”

This week, 114 downtown restaurants are open with dine-in or takeout service, Brewer said. The number of open downtown restaurants has grown each week since May 9.

It’s a trend that is happening across the country. Cities from Tampa, Fla., to Las Vegas to Portland, Maine, are opening sidewalks and closing streets to create large alfresco or plein air dining rooms, USA Today reported, to help shops and restaurants reopen and still observe social distancing guidelines.

Scott Evans, owner of Pago and Finca restaurants, is one of several Salt Lake City business owners who backs the mayor’s move.

“I applaud her for listening to the small-business community and acting quickly,” he said. “It is a simple solution that has immediate positive results.”

Evans said Pago, his 13-table restaurant at 878 S. 900 East, can use only five tables to meet social distancing requirements. “This takes our capacity of 50 down to 20 people inside.”

And only four of the eight tables on the patio can be used.

“With the changes from Salt Lake City, we would be able to add an additional four or five tables on the park strip,” he said, “which would make a significant improvement on the chance to capture some additional guests and revenue.”

Evans said the only stumbling block will be for restaurants that serve alcohol. They will need to get approval from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

“The ability to sell alcohol in these expanded seating areas is critical,” he said. “A streamlined and simple process ... would be very helpful for the restaurant community.”

In an email Friday, the DABC said Salt Lake City restaurants won’t be cited — at least for a week — if they expand those sales. But it is encouraging businesses that serve alcohol to wait for the issue to be addressed next week.

The agency said it is in discussions with the Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and the Legislature with regard to the issue of alcohol service in expanded outdoor dining areas.

“The DABC lacks the authority to unilaterally modify existing laws absent express authority otherwise from either the governor or the Legislature,” the statement said. “Given the current economic environment, some cities and licensees have taken action prior to formal legislative resolution of the issue."

The DABC said it understands that COVID-19 has had a significant economic impact on cities and businesses.

“We will refrain from enforcing aspects of the alcohol sales, service and consumption laws for the next week, provided licensees comply with the following”:

• Sales to minors and intoxicated individuals are strictly prohibited.

• Licensees comply with all the requirements imposed by their respective municipalities.

• Alcohol sales, service and consumption occur within the modified premises approved by the municipality in which the licensee is located.