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NKY expanded outdoor seating for restaurants in the pandemic. Then the complaints started

Newport on the Levee sits empty in March 2020 after the pandemic takes hold of the country.
Mike Blaney
Newport on the Levee sits empty in March 2020 after the pandemic took hold of the country.

Local municipalities offered breaks to bars and restaurants during the pandemic, allowing owners to place tables and chairs outside to curb the spread of COVID-19. Outdoor seating allowed for social distancing and better airflow. But as the pandemic continues into its second year, noise complaints from residents, ADA violations and snow removal have meant the exceptions have had to stop in some cities.

In Newport, Kentucky, bars and restaurants in spring 2020 were permitted to put year-round outdoor seating on sidewalks. Usually, permits for outdoor seating are only issued from April 1 to Nov. 1.

"COVID was very difficult for small businesses, especially bars and restaurants, and it afforded them an opportunity to continue to serve people," Newport Mayor Tom Guidugli, Jr. said.

But there have been complaints.

"Noise is always a concern … because of COVID (changes), those complaints come in regularly," he said, noting the city is obligated to respond to the complaints. "The other complaints were more specific and it just comes along with what happens when people occasionally have too much to drink, unfortunately, and make bad decisions."

President of Newport Business Association Mark Ramler is co-owner of neighborhood bar Jerry's Jug House on 7th Street.

"The last year-and-a-half has been a crazy roller coaster with what's going on," he said. "What are we allowed to do? What are we not allowed to do? But having the outdoor seating has definitely helped get us through this roughest patch."

But city officials reached out to businesses via mail or by contacting owners directly, telling them outdoor seating would have to be restricted again this fall and winter.

"We had to take our stuff down November - beginning of November - which with nice weather, it did have an impact on our business," Ramler said.

With more people getting vaccinated, he says business has started to bounce back and people are more willing to go back to having drinks and dining inside. But variants like omicron and delta make people uneasy about being indoors with strangers. Year-round outdoor seating opportunities could help make people more comfortable going out. 

Guidugli says the city is working on a new ordinance that would allow outdoor seating year round, but with some provisions.

"So say it's January 4, and it's 70 degrees, which has been happening, that people would be able to put out their furniture. But they would also be responsible enough to return it and allow access if we had a snow day," he said.

Owners would also have to ensure ADA compliance and take responsibility for unruly guests. There will be limitations, so outdoor seating isn't permitted too late in the evening.

But there's no timeline for getting the issue on the agenda for a caucus meeting.

Concerns over public land for private purposes

Newport isn't the only city in Northern Kentucky facing issues about expanded outdoor seating.

In Bellevue, restaurants were always permitted to have outdoor seating on adjacent sidewalks. But a few bars were given permission to have outdoor seating in city parking lots during the pandemic.

City Administrator Frank Warnock said the easements expired about two months ago.

"Some of the neighbors complained about the loss of the parking spaces," he said. "And ... they had raised questions about the use of public land for private purposes, those type of questions."

Warnock said, like Newport, the city is considering legislation that would allow bars and restaurants to expand outdoor seating indefinitely with some restrictions.

"You have to have a lot of guideposts in there for legal reasons. Things like, it has to be ADA compliant. It has to be safe. And then we start using public space for private purposes, there's a fairness aspect to it. And there are legal issues affiliated with that," he said.

The issue is likely to be considered by council at the beginning of 2022.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.