The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control board has reversed course and likely won’t let downtown Decatur restaurants serve alcohol in any dining areas set up in street-side parking spots during the coronavirus pandemic.
City Attorney Herman Marks said last week board officials gave the city verbal permission for alcohol sales in temporary expanded outdoor seating during the pandemic, but later in the week an ABC official wrote a letter to the city advising it to rethink its plan to help restaurants.
Restaurant owners asked in June for the change because the state's emergency COVID-19 order limits occupancy of restaurants to 50% and requires that tables be at least 6 feet apart, significantly reducing the number of potential customers and revenue.
In an email to the City Council, Joseph Perez of the Decatur Planning Department wrote that Andy Dutton, of ABC, said he forwarded the issue to ABC Board President Alan Spencer, and he expected a formal decision today.
However, Perez said Dutton “informed me that it is highly unlikely that ABC would approve expanding a sidewalk café serving alcohol into parking spaces along a public street. He noted that if the city wanted to permit alcohol-free sidewalk café type expansion into parking spaces, that is not the decision of ABC. But, with respect to serving alcohol, Andy expressed doubt that ABC would allow that to go forward.”
Perez wrote in the email that the ABC is OK with an outdoor expansion on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant and its neighboring business, with permission from that neighboring business's owner. The restaurant must honor the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires 5 feet of space on the sidewalk.
Christy Wheat, of Simp McGhee’s restaurant on Bank Street, was the first downtown owner to apply for permission to use the sidewalk, and the City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve her plan.
Matthew Marques, of the Planning Department, told the council Wheat got permission from the owner to set up tables in front of the storefront of what used to be a Civil War museum. However, the ADA rule leaves Wheat only about 4½ feet for tables.
Wheat said Monday she will be able to add 14 seats to her restaurant on the sidewalk. She had a plan that would have added 24 seats if she had been able to put tables in the parking spaces.
“I’m still holding out hope the director will change his mind,” Wheat said.
ABC did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment on the issue.
Wheat said the additional seats will help her restaurant, which like many other restaurants, has been hit hard by coronavirus restrictions.
The summer heat has arrived in Decatur, and Wheat said some people don’t want to sit outside. She said there are some people who will only eat outside because of the pandemic.
“Luckily, the sunset is to the rear of our building so our seating will be in the shade early,” said Wheat, who plans to use the outdoor seating on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 until 10 p.m.
Wheat said the approval sets her up for the cooler weather if the pandemic drags on into the fall.
Simp McGhee’s is the first restaurant to apply but other restaurant owners expressed interest in outside dining.
A restaurant that wants to temporarily expand outside during the pandemic must submit a plan to the Planning Department and to the Public Space Committee, which includes the Police Department and Decatur Fire & Rescue. The City Council then has to approve the request under the city’s sidewalk café ordinance.
The issue began with controversy after Mayor Tab Bowling and Police Chief Nate Allen — in violation of the city code — granted Simp McGhee's the right to block off and use the 700 block of Bank Street for expanded dining on June 6.
The owners of several neighboring businesses complained that the restaurant was blocking access to their establishments.
Wheat and other restaurant owners then went to the Planning Commission and the City Council for permission in an effort to expand the city’s sidewalk café ordinance to include parking spots.