Last week, the State of Colorado released new rules on patio dining that define exactly what it considers outdoor versus indoor space. The goal was to help restaurants figure out how many customers they can seat in a given area, whether under a tent, a tarp, an umbrella or other covered or enclosed areas.
Once the state issued its guidelines, Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses reviewed the rules (a tent with three or four walls, for example, is considered indoors, but a tent with two opposing open sides is defined as outdoors) and made the move to extend its current expanded outdoor seating program through October 2021. (The program was originally scheduled to end on October 31, 2020.) So as long as licensed Denver establishments follow the state's COVID-related health and safety regulations, they'll be able to maintain outdoor areas in parking lots and on lawns, sidewalks, streets and other public areas.
The city began its program at the end of spring, to help restaurants add more outside seating in order to make up for reduced capacity indoors. In some areas, traffic lanes or entire streets were closed. Businesses will be able to keep those spaces for the next year, but they'll have to reapply every 120 days — or every 90 days, if their expanded seating spreads out over a public right-of-way. In that case, the main reason for the shorter time period is to give Denver's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure the chance to review snow removal and other public-safety issues that could change during the colder months.
So far, the city has approved more than 330 expanded patios (waiving $1.6 million in street occupancy fees in the process), although Ashley Kilroy, director of Excise and Licenses, says the department is not sure how many of those will want to keep their outdoor expansions open over the winter.
"We've heard from people that this has been a lifeline for their businesses to keep operating," Kilroy notes. "Denver still remains committed to helping restaurants while following public health and safety guidelines from the state."
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In normal years, restaurants wishing to add outdoor seating have to coordinate with multiple city agencies (health, fire and building codes, for example) for inspections and approvals, but Kilroy says that the Excise and Licenses program "is a one-stop shop. Start with us, and we're going to try and cut through the red tape."
“We’re proud this program has been a lifeblood for expanded serving capacity to keep Denver businesses open and to keep their employees working,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said in a separate statement announcing the extension. “We will work with restaurants and bars on creative models that allow them to extend this program through the cold weather months, while maintaining the strenuous protections in place to prevent COVID-19 transmission.”
Whether restaurants will want to maintain or even expand their current outdoor setups through the winter remains to be seen, since adding heaters and temporary enclosed structures could turn their outdoor seating —which allows for far more guests under state rules — into indoor seating, which would then fall under the same capacity restrictions as dining rooms.
But the obstacles have been cleared for those who want to continue (Excise and Licenses is even taking new applications online, and questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org), so start your parka shopping now to be ready for winter days and nights dining out in the crisp Colorado air.