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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

Outdoor Dining, Bars Open This Weekend: Here's What You Need To Know

AP Photo/Matt York
Outdoor dining and bars reopen in Ohio this weekend.

Cincinnati's pilot program allowing restaurants and bars to reopen with expanded outdoor areas gets a trial run this weekend as the first businesses prepare to welcome customers.

Restaurant and bar owners across the city - not just those in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine - can apply for permission to offer outdoor dining and drinking through a portal on the city's website. Department heads from multiple agencies went to work on the plan after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced May 7 businesses could resume outdoor dining May 15. A day after his announcement, Cincinnati releasedan initial list of streets that will be closed to allow expanded outdoor dining and seating.

Businesses wishing to reopen with expanded outdoor offerings must create and submit an application and site plan proposal outlining how they'll meet all the required health, safety and accessibility regulations. Applications must also include information about how they'll maintain pedestrian and/or street traffic if they plan to expand onto a sidewalk or block off a road lane.

The turnaround on approvals is slated to be about two business days, though applications including road closures or more complicated requests may take longer. Some decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis with varying rules. For example, some sidewalks may be deemed too narrow for use.

More details are included in an FYI memo from the city manager's office. A webinar is planned for May 19 at 5:30 p.m. to lead people through the process.

"People around the city - restaurant owners, community members - they can learn how to be successful in their application, specifically on that site plan development," says Kelly Carr, assistant to the city manager. "It's not just a matter of taking a Google Map and a highlighter."

Carr says the portal will also include a place where community members can provide feedback about what's working and what might not be.

City leaders expect there will be problems, with rules and police safety regulations likely to change from week to week. City Manager Patrick Duhaney says there's bound to be some non-compliance.

"We're going to probably have some of that this weekend; we're probably going to have some of this next week," Duhaney says. "Hopefully everybody understands that we're still in a pandemic but that's some of the concerns that I have, that the police chief has, the health commissioner has, the mayor has... People are going to go and they may enjoy this a little too much. We're going to have a difficult time with our police department and health department trying to get people to maintain social distancing."

He expects there could be a strong turnout from people excited about getting out and seeing friends. "We're going to have to monitor these (first) two weekends very, very tightly and strongly to help set the tone of how this is going to need to be done if we're going to have to go through this for 12-18 months."

Councilman David Mann worries the loosening of state restrictions and reopening of bars and restaurants may lead to a mindset that everything is safe now.

"We're seeing from other parts of the country that some of the jurisdictions that have opened up too fast and haven't respected social distancing, mask wearing and some of the other things that the experts are counseling, are getting in real trouble real fast and the cases are spiking back up."

While businesses are required to cover the costs of reopening - like paying for additional police details or buying road lane barricades - Duhaney says the city will likely have to help with those costs, pointing to projections that we're likely to be living with these modified pandemic regulations for 12 to 18 months.

Several council members have concerns about the ability for small businesses to pay for these added costs. A single road lane barricade - the orange kind that are filled with water - can run $500-$600, according to police Lt. Col. Paul Neudigate.

This is a 90-day pilot program. State and local rules began rolling out quickly after DeWine's announcement last week. Duhaney says the city administration - knowing these regulations will probably be needed for a long time - is working on long-term program and legislation to last the duration of the pandemic. He reiterates the rules may change frequently as new problems and questions arise.

He and other city leaders acknowledge the program was created quickly and that some people will wonder why more time isn't being taken like it normally would.

"We could go through that process of immense community engagement but then we'd probably drag this out to the point where our businesses won't be able to take advantage of this," Duhaney says. "We are trying to be as considerate as possible, but this really started Thursday with the governor's order and it's been about five or six days right now."

Credit Courtesy of 3CDC
Orange road barriers mark off a portion of Vine Street for use as outdoor seating space by Abigail Street and Senate restaurants in Over-the-Rhine.

Quick Specifics

Liquor Licenses - Duhaney says an establishment's existing liquor license will cover its expanded outdoor area. However, since licenses are controlled by the state, an establishment must get permission from the state liquor agency. He expects if a business has city approval for its plan, the state liquor agency will give approval.

Residential Parking - People who live in areas with residential parking permits will be allowed to use their permits to park free at metered spaces if nearby road closures for outdoor dining affect parking in their neighborhood.

Parking Lots - Businesses that have parking lots will be allowed to use them for outdoor dining/seating. Rules about how much parking a business must have available will be relaxed during this time.

Noise - Outdoor areas will be allowed to operate until 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. There are noise guidelines in the application process.

Violations - The public can report violations or file complaints several ways: online, by email, by phone, or if necessary, by calling the local police district's non-emergency number.

Restrooms - Establishments will be allowed to utilize their indoor restrooms for outdoor patrons, meaning additional facilities won't be required.

Social Distancing - All outdoor spaces must maintain appropriate social distance among patrons.

Outdoor Cleanup - Businesses will be responsible for cleaning and maintaining the outdoor spaces they're utilizing, including sidewalks and roads that would normally be in the public right-of-way.

First Wave

3CDC went to work immediately following the governor's re-opening announcement. At least eight restaurants in Over-the-Rhine expect to have the necessary permits to open Friday with more throughout the neighborhood and Downtown expected to be ready by the weekend. They include: Senate, Abigail Street, Krueger's, Bakersfield, The Mercer, Pontiac BBQ, Pepp & Dolores, and Maize.

3CDC recommends checking with a restaurant for operating hours and participating businesses may open at their discretion.

A statement from a group representing businesses at The Banks says, "The restaurants and bars at The Banks have collaboratively agreed to offer limited outdoor patio seating and carry-out starting Friday, May 15 and will not be offering 'Street Seats' this weekend."

The statement continues that businesses are working with city on safety protocols and some will be open for outdoor dining on their patios.

"If you would like to patronize a bar or restaurant at The Banks starting May 15, please check their hours of service first and be patient with these new rules.  The collective of bars and restaurants at The Banks will continue to explore the 'Street Seats' options and how to best introduce this experience in a safe environment."

Credit Courtesy of 3CDC

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.