DENVER – A temporary city program that has helped restaurants expand their serving capacity after the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year will become a permanent option for many businesses in 2022, Mayor Michael Hancock announced Tuesday.
Hancock and other city officials, as well as members from the Colorado Restaurant Association, made the announcement from the Daughter Thai Kitchen and Bar in downtown Denver during a news conference early Tuesday afternoon.
"The restaurant industry has been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, and the outdoor dining program provided them a little bit of relief to help them keep their doors open and their workers employed,” Hancock said. “We’re looking forward to making our outdoor dining program a permanent part of the Denver experience and supporting a sustainable economic recovery for our local restaurants, their employees and the communities they’re a part of.”
Denver’s Temporary Outdoor Expansions Program, which allows restaurants and bars to operate in outdoor settings adjacent to their businesses, was originally set to expire at the end of October 2020 but was extended through October 2022 in late September of this year.
City officials said in a news release the permanent program will allow restaurants and bars to continue to apply for permits to use private and public spaces after the temporary program ends in October of next year.
For now, city agencies are figuring out how many of the businesses currently participating can it make it a long-term plan of their business model. During Tuesday's news conference, officials warned not everyone would be able to get a seat at the table.
"With traffic levels returning back to normal, we won’t be able to have every dining area that has expanded seating to the public right of way to continue," Hancock said. "What we’re going to do is to go by a case by case, restaurant by restaurant, bar by bar assessment.”
A survey conducted earlier this year by the Colorado Restaurant Association found 74% of respondents said they would like to see outdoor dining become permanent, with 71.4% saying they planned to go through the process of making their temporary outdoor dining area permanent. The survey also found that 54% of restaurant revenue over the summer came from outdoor dining areas during the first few months of the pandemic.
"It’s hard for people to understand when they see a busy restaurant on a Friday night," said master sommelier Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Hospitality Group. "They think we’re all out of it (economic hardship), what they don’t understand is a couple of busy Friday nights doesn’t make up for the last 18 months. We need to do whatever possible to keep these restaurants open, (to keep) taking care of guests."
In a news release, city officials said the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) will continue to review requests to use the public right of way for outdoor dining. It will also establish processes around a permanent outdoor dining program, likely transitioning from a quarterly to annual permit renewal process and outlining requirements that maintain public safety and mobility. Criteria/limits for using parking lanes and travel lanes for dining will be established to ensure the safety of all.
The department will also begin charging a $50 fee for temporary outdoor dinning permits, due at each quarterly renewal period, starting at the end of this month. Permitting fees for the permanent program will be announced at a later date, officials said.
"While the outdoor dining program itself is becoming permanent, right of way permits are always temporary and revocable to allow the city to react to changing conditions along a particular stretch," city officials said in the release, adding the new program will require amendments to the city's zoning code, which require public input and must be approved by Denver City Council. That work will begin in early 2022.
City officials said rules and regulations of the permanent outdoor dining program will be available on the city's website. For the most updated information, as well as for tips and requirements for restaurants offering outdoor seating during the upcoming winter months, click here.
Editor's note at 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the city was announcing the expansion of the temporary program through October 2022 at time of publishing. The temporary program had already been expanded through October 2022 before Tuesday's news conference.