Local Opinion

Published on May 8th, 2020 | by Kevin Frye


How Will Restaurants Re-open Successfully?

The Oxford Board of Aldermen will meet tomorrow to discuss whether to allow restaurants to re-open for dine-in service, and if so, under what conditions. Some restaurants in Mississippi began opening for dine-in service yesterday, but did so with numerous restrictions imposed by Governor Reeves’ Executive Order No. 1478, including a requirement that “[t]he number of customers…shall be no greater than 50% of seating capacity.” See, Paragraph I(a)(x).

Why it’s important: Restaurants employ more Lafayette County workers than any other sector, save government. Moreover, they contribute heavily to Oxford’s unique culture, identity and bottom line.

  • “Restaurants have become the economic lifeblood for many cities” reports The New York Times.
  • Oxford’s 2% Tourism Tax, which annually funds varied community enhancements, programming and the salaries of many staff, including first responders, is imposed on retail sales of prepared food, beer and alcoholic beverages at restaurants. Recent decisions to suspend curbside recycling and furlough personnel were due, in part, to current and projected losses of sales tax revenue.

Big picture: Guidance from public health officials continues to limit “normal” operation of restaurants, and prudent employees and consumers will remain understandably reluctant to risk exposure to the novel coronavirus in typical restaurant settings for some time.

  • Restaurants operate on razor thin margins, and will struggle to remain viable with 50% of their seating capacity vacant.
  • Leaders are faced with important decisions surrounding the health, safety and welfare of our community and should look to create opportunities for restaurants to re-open in ways both safe and economically viable.

Opportunity for creativity: Recognizing the importance of restaurants to our community, policy makers should responsibly craft coronavirus specific guidelines and regulations while also seeking out innovative opportunities. Tactical urbanism, a concept long-familiar to cities interested in evaluating new ideas, provides just such an opportunity.

  • Early on in the crises Oxford leaders reserved certain parking spaces around the Square for curbside pick-up. They should expand on this policy city-wide by immediately suspending outdoor dining restrictions, replacing them with temporary rules encouraging outdoor seating on designated sidewalks and parking spaces, and collaborating with interested restaurant owners on best practices.

Bottom line: We are living in a new era that requires quick and innovative policy solutions. We all miss our favorite restaurants. A simple and inexpensive option, temporary outdoor seating, is a win-win for everyone!

Kevin W. Frye is an attorney in Oxford, Mississippi.

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