Entering the Yellow Phase of the state’s COVID-19 reopening program was exciting for City of Allentown businesses because it meant that some of them could provide services to clients outdoors only. But it also meant that the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development had to get creative FAST in order to allow restaurants, bars, and cafes to expand their footprints outside of their facilities.

Tom Williams, Operations Manager for the City of Allentown’s DCED, helped to lead an internal team to implement as quickly as possible the rules and regulations for expanded business footprints, while also following the state’s COVID guidelines.

“Times were really hard for local businesses, and the outdoor seating for customers that was permitted in the Yellow Phase was a lifeline for them,” said Williams. “We wanted to do all we could to help them out.”

The internal team included the city’s departments of zoning, planning, health, public works, and of course, economic development. Before getting started they did online research to see what other communities in the state were doing that had already moved to Yellow Phase.

“We looked to these other counties for examples and idea of what they did so we could determine if it might work for us in Allentown. It really was a collaborative effort at the city to make this happen,” Williams said.

The Process

The city created a permit for a Temporary Outdoor Seating Area (TOSA) and uploaded it to the web site where applicants could download it, fill it out, and email it to the city. No application fee was charged. Businesses in good standing with the city and with a valid certificate of occupancy had to submit a rendering of what their outdoor setup would look like. Each application had to be reviewed by the departments previously mentioned, as well as the fire department, after which the applicant was emailed their certificate to print out and display. All businesses had to agree to follow CDC and state health guidelines regarding social distancing of table setups and the wearing of masks by staff and patrons.

Each business requesting a TOSA was visited by the city to take measurements to ensure that the proper amount of space was allowed for pedestrians, and that they were in compliance with ADA requirements. In some instances, city officials then drew lines to indicate allowed setup space.

“We know that these are extremely difficult times for small businesses and restaurants,” said Leonard Lightner, Director of Community and Economic Development for the City. “The City of Allentown developed the Temporary Outdoor Seating Area Permit in order to allow restaurants to utilize outdoor spaces for expanded seating. Multiple city departments were involved in this expedited process to assist our small businesses, while keeping patrons and pedestrians safe.”

“When you consider that the city was shorthanded due to staff furloughs and how much had to be turnaround quickly so that businesses were ready to set up outside when we went yellow, I am very impressed with what our team was able to get done,” said Williams. “We weren’t overwhelmed with requests, but we did have to move fast. Overall we’ve received positive response from local business owners about the process.”

Bridgeworks Companies Take to the Streets

Two members of the Bridgeworks Beverage Alliance, Colony Meadery and Hijinx Brewing, decided to apply for TOSAs so they could reopen outdoors after having been carry-out only for the prior several weeks during Red Phase.

Hijinx owner Curt Keck jumped at the chance to apply for the permit. “It was a simple process to apply with the city with surprisingly fast turnaround,” said Keck. “Once our application was reviewed by the city departments, two inspectors came out to mark off the public right-of-way and the footprint for our setup. It was even better that there was no application fee.”

With sales as much as 60 percent down since March, Keck said there was no question in his mind about participating in the TOSA program. “Being able to sell beer for takeout helped, and we even did delivery in a few places. But we needed to get our doors open again, even if it was only going to be at 50 percent of our usual capacity,” Keck continued.

So far feedback on the outdoor seating has been positive and customers have been good about wearing masks when coming up to the bar to place an order. “People want to get their brews and then hangout with each other, and who doesn’t want to be outside on a nice summer’s day? I hope the TOSAs stay in place for the duration of the pandemic. I think a lot of business owners are hoping that they return next summer too.” said Keck.

He’s bringing in live music on Saturdays and occasionally a food truck is onsite to help draw patrons back to his brewery.

Next door at The Colony Meadery, owners Mike Manning and Greg Heller-LaBelle also applied for a TOSA permit. “Like most companies we couldn’t not jump at the chance to reopen outdoors, even in a limited capacity,” said Heller-LaBelle. “It allows us an opportunity to regain some revenue from on-premises sales, which where a major part of what we did in the past. As the highest margin part of our business, on-premise consumption fuels the rest of what we do during normal times. We were able to use the furniture we had along with some borrowed furniture to get started with the outdoor setup. We’ll monitor it to see what else we might need to add to enhance customer comfort.”

“The application process was fairly easy,” said Manning. He used Google Maps and Google Earth to mark up where the meadery’s outdoor seating would be located. “We then provided a copy of our certificate of occupancy and our business license. We turned in most of the paperwork on a Thursday evening and the rest of it on Friday afternoon, and we had a temporary permit by Friday evening. The city did a really good job of not making the process so difficult that it would take us a week of work to gather the requirements.”

During the Red Phase of the pandemic, Colony also offered carry-out orders which provided the small business with a source of revenue at a time when they didn’t have any. “If you view our business model as a three-legged stool, with direct-to-consumer sales, wholesaler orders, and local bars and retailers as the three stools, then we were without two legs, and the other one was sawed in half,” explained Heller-LaBelle.

“We’re currently looking at revenue during quarantine that was about 20 percent of what we’re used to,” he continued. “One area where we benefitted at least a little was that, unlike many smaller places that are primarily tap rooms, we were at least ready to ship and sell packaged goods already, so our costs went down a bit. Many of the breweries that had to pivot to crowler sales experienced a major hit to their cost structure as they had to suddenly become packaging breweries.”

The other member of the Bridgeworks Beverage Alliance, County Seat Spirits, decided not to apply for a City of Allentown TOSA and instead focused its efforts on growing sales at its Easton tasting room at the Simon Silk Mill complex.

Looking Ahead

Williams hopes this experience can be a learning lesson for the city and moving forward he expects that they may work expanded outdoor seating areas into their revamped zoning codes. “We want to continue to provide an environment that is business-friendly and determine ways we can help and support small businesses,” said Williams.

At this point the TOSA program doesn’t have a set expiration date for when the seating areas will go away. Williams acknowledges the popularity of the new program and how well it has rolled out, knowing that business owners might be sad to see it go. “We want to let everyone in the Lehigh Valley know that Allentown is open for business,” he said.