Despite a reversal by the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control board, a downtown Decatur restaurant still won’t be able to extend its dining into on-street parking spots during the coronavirus pandemic.
Citing safety concerns, the City Council agreed Monday evening that it won’t allow Christy Wheat, owner of Simp McGhee’s restaurant on Bank Street, to extend her dining into the four parking spaces in front of her business and the empty storefront next door.
“I don’t understand it,” Wheat said Tuesday. “The fire chief says it’s safe. The police chief says it’s safe, and ABC says it’s safe. But now our City Council can’t come together for the betterment of our community and help businesses.”
The council did approve Bank Street Grill’s certificate to expand its sidewalk café during the pandemic but reduced the days it can set up the additional tables from Tuesdays through Saturdays to Thursdays through Saturdays. Simp McGhee’s already has a certificate to use sidewalk space during the pandemic.
Restaurant owners asked for the additional space 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 customers and revenue.
The issue has been controversial from the start. In June, Mayor Tab Bowling and Police Chief Nate Allen said they didn’t know they were violating a city ordinance by giving Wheat permission to block off the 700 block of Bank Street for one evening. The event drew complaints from neighboring business owners.
Wheat then went to the council. She got council approval for widening the sidewalk café, but ABC rejected her proposal to expand into the street parking spots.
Now ABC approves of the plan and the council opposes it.
Wheat said her business is benefiting from the sidewalk spaces “because everyone wants to be outside right now” during the pandemic. However, her location on the sidewalk isn’t ideal because of a slope that makes it difficult to keep the tables level.
“People feel safer outside,” Wheat said.
Bowling asked the council Monday to give Simp McGhee’s a break and approve the parking-spot dining to help the owners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Councilmen Chuck Ard and Billy Jackson were allies Monday when they said they were uncomfortable with Simp McGhee’s plan to require traffic barrels and blinking warning lights, bought by the business, between Bank Street traffic and the parking-space diners.
Both said they want to support small businesses but they are concerned about public safety.
“I’m not enamored with people dining so close to traffic,” Ard said. “Somebody is going to get hit.”
Jackson said it’s the council’s job to protect public safety.
City Attorney Herman Marks added to the council members’ angst when he said the city could be held liable if someone were to drive into the diners and cause injury.
“The city could be found liable because it is city property and we gave the business permission to use the parking spots,” Marks said.
Councilwoman Kristi Hill said Bank Street is different from Second Avenue because Second Avenue is busier and not as wide.
Allen suggested to Wheat using the traffic barrels and warning lights. He said Bank Street traffic “is down to nothing” on weekends, but said he understands the council’s reservations.
Council President Paige Bibbee said she thought the restaurant owner has to sign a liability waiver and an insurance rider to get a permit as part of the sidewalk café ordinance, and Marks said they do.
“But we could still get sued,” Marks said. “The question then would be whether we would be held liable, and I have no way of knowing that answer.”
Councilman Charles Kirby said the sidewalk café with the use of parking spots for dining “is kind of the European way of doing business but the tort problem is different in this country. With the additional liability, it would be irresponsible to the taxpayers for us to approve this.”
Kirby also got the council to change Bank Street Grill’s permit so the restaurant, which is down the sidewalk from Simp McGhee’s, can only use the additional sidewalk space from Thursdays through Saturdays during pandemic.
Kirby said Wheat’s certificate is only for these three days, so “we need to be consistent.”
The council agreed unanimously to amend the original motion and make the change.
Grill owner Scott Bryant said Tuesday he’s OK with the council change. He has to leave half of the 10-foot sidewalk as a path for the handicapped, so he estimated he will gain four to five tables.
“I really just put my restaurant hours (on the permit application),” Bryant said. “I never was in favor of using the street for dining.”
Bryant found himself in the controversy on July 24 when he set up in an unapproved outdoor area in preparation for business hours.
Failure to provide a plan for expanded seating to the city and obtain City Council and state Alcoholic Beverage Control approval is a violation of city and state laws, Marks told the council at last week’s work session.
Bryant said Tuesday he didn’t know he needed permission to use the additional sidewalk. He said he already has a permit for a sidewalk café, but the council's action Monday allowed him to expand it.