Birmingham business owners could face jail time if they fail to remove outdoor extensions for COVID

Posted at 7:04 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-01 19:04:50-04

BIRMINGHAM (WXYZ) — "It was a shock," said Antonino Cutraro, owner of the popular Birmingham restaurant Bella Piatti who had hoped that the city would allow businesses to keep their added outdoor areas until the middle of September or even longer.

"There's so many people still uncomfortable to eat inside," Cutraro told 7 Action News Thursday. "I don't know what can we do, but they told me to take it down and I am going to take it down."

To help businesses stay afloat during COVID restrictions, many cities allowed more than just restaurants to operate in the outdoor area, just outside their locations, which meant anything from adding tables to constructing more involved covered areas.

Some cities including Ann Arbor and Northville closed down a couple of blocks in their downtown areas to allow for the outdoor expansion.

Other cities, like Birmingham, opted to allow businesses to occupy some of the parking spots and sidewalk areas with ample space for pedestrians to pass through.

June 30 was the last day for Birmingham businesses to use any outdoor extension that they didn't have already have permits to occupy before the pandemic prompted restrictions.

"We, also, did send out a letter to all the restaurants this week to remind them, 'Hey, you remember this was temporary,'" said Jana Ecker, Planning Director for the City of Birmingham who said her phone has been ringing from business owners who wanted the city to continue allowing them to use their outdoor extensions.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," Ecker said. "People think that we're taking away outdoor dining altogether, which we are not."

Ecker said outdoor dining is a part of what people love the most about the city and a number of restaurants already had permits to occupy some outdoor space or sought approval during the pandemic.

But those that didn't now have 14 days to remove those outdoor structures.

"Even though the contract, the lease, they signed said they have 24 hours to remove it, we thought that was a little bit too hasty. So we actually gave them 14 days, so two weeks, to get their structures that were put in under the temporary COVID regulations removed."

For the owner of Bella Piatti, that means removing about $100,000 worth of materials and labor to construct his added outdoor space, taking out almost a dozen tables and leaving seven.

"It's going to be a lot of upset customers," Cutraro said. "I cannot fight city hall.. that's what they want, that's what I'm doing."

In Northville where they blocked off two blocks of their downtown area, they have decided to keep the streets closed, allowing businesses to continue with their outdoor spaces until February 2022 and possibly longer, according to Lori Ward who heads up the Northville Downtown Development Authority.

"I think we've had a lot of tremendous amount of support for the expansion of our outdoor dining and retail on the sidewalks and keeping the streets open to pedestrians only," Ward told 7 Action News. "I think it's made people feel safe and they're able to control their own environment which, I think, has really been beneficial for not only our residents but their support of the businesses."

And while Ward said some businesses have reported sales better than before the pandemic, she acknowledges that not every business owner is happy about the streets being blocked in front of their store.

At the Dancing Eye Gallery, manager Janine Bauchat said it's been a positive experience for them having an outdoor space for customers to relax and enjoy themselves.

"We love it," Bauchat said.

In Birmingham, Cutraro is proud that he hasn't had to let any employees go and he's hoping he'll be able to keep the additional staff he's hired on by transitioning them to a new restaurant he's planning to open soon.