Metro bill would allow more outdoor seating for restaurants

Outdoor seating at Lockeland Table in East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)
Outdoor seating at Lockeland Table in East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

Nashville restaurants will be able to add more outdoor seating on sidewalks and parking lots around their buildings and permitting fees would be waived under a Metro Council bill on the brink of passing.

The bill, sponsored by Councilman Sean Parker, cleared second reading on Tuesday and is scheduled for a final reading on Sept. 15.

The legislation temporarily eliminates the $100 permitting fee restaurants must pay to Metro Public Works. The legislation stipulates that the outdoor seating still must comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal to block a sidewalk so a person in a wheelchair could not get by. Previously only downtown area restaurants could get permits for outdoor dining but Parker’s bill gives the option to restaurants countywide.

Parker said the bill is meant to help small businesses that have suffered because of government restrictions to indoor seating due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Two things led to this, and one is our evolving understanding of COVID-19 and the fact outdoor activity is much, much safer than indoor in terms of potential spread,” Parker said. “And then, a lot of these small businesses when we’ve opened up, or gone to phase three and then back to phase two, and they’ve faced capacity restrictions, they’re just trying to survive. This is allowing them to expand seating into the outdoor area is kind of a no-brainer to me, given the moment we’re in.”

Metro Nashville Councilmember Sean Parker (Photo: Submitted)
Metro Nashville Councilmember Sean Parker (Photo: Submitted)

Cara Graham, co-owner of the East Nashville restaurant Lockeland Table, said she appreciated the city responding to the needs of restaurants that have complied with the capacity restrictions and health department regulations.

Lockeland Table already went through the city’s regulatory permitting process and added 14 seats outdoors.

“Ninety percent of the customers who call and ask about seating want to sit outdoors, and they want to sit on the sidewalk,” Graham said. “So this definitely makes a difference.”

Becky Gaines, co-owner of the popular East Nashville bar Mickey’s Tavern, said the legislation isn’t a financial panacea. But, Gaines said she supports the bill because it gives business owners the option to add seating if it makes sense. Mickey’s already has a large outdoor seating area, but it is uncovered. That means when it rains, the bar has to navigate bringing in patrons and staying under the city’s cap of 25 people indoors at bars.

A few blocks away from Mickey’s, Gaines opened the upscale bar Henry James the same week the pandemic took root in March. She said more outdoor seating is an option at Henry James.

“This won’t make bars whole, it won’t make us whole. But I do support it, and I do appreciate the effort to work with bars that have really been affected,” Gaines said.

There may be a procedural hurdle facing the bill, which is scheduled for its final reading in two weeks. During the council meeting on Tuesday, Parker indicated that an amendment may be necessary for the bill when it’s up for third reading following feedback from the public works and planning departments.

But, in order for the amendment to be considered, Parker will have to suspend the rules, and objection from at least two council members will defer the bill for a month. Under that scenario, restaurants couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity for more outdoor seating and no permitting fees until October, leaving precious few weeks for outdoor dining this year.

“The goal is to get this passed and help as many small businesses as want to take advantage of this as soon as possible,” Parker said.