The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to adapt to an ever-changing environment, but a new challenge is on the horizon — winter.
Many restaurants have shifted to focus on outdoor dining, but the bottom line could take another hit with colder weather.
“Certainly, [the pandemic] has already impacted the local economy,” said Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s economic development director. “With winter coming, that will further impact folks that rely on outdoor dining.”
The city and Albemarle County have been providing monetary and technical assistance to businesses throughout the pandemic and are gearing up for more help ahead of winter.
The City Council approved an ordinance in May suspending on-site parking requirements to allow restaurants to use parking lots or spaces for business.
Albemarle announced that businesses with liquor licenses could apply for an expedited approval for an outdoor dining area, which may include parking lots. The county is streamlining the application and waiving fees.
Through federal and local relief funding, the city will have provided more than $2 million in grants to businesses by the end of the year.
The city recently approved distribution of its second round of relief funding and Engel said businesses that didn’t receive grants in the first round will be given priority. The city plans to publish guidelines this coming week.
Engel said about half of the grants went to restaurants and he expects more will be seeking help in the second round.
Engel said the city’s grant program doesn’t specifically target outdoor dining options. Businesses can use the grants for fixed costs, such as rent, utilities and payroll.
Albemarle is using CARES Act money to award grants to businesses that have temporarily expanded outdoors or plan to expand to serve customers. Roger Johnson, the county’s economic development director, said the idea came during the county’s first round of business grants, where they learned that most of the businesses were going to use funds for normal operations.
“Nowhere did we find businesses that had capital to expand operations to overcome some of the public health emergency issues — no financing for that,” he said. “And so we wanted to put these businesses in a place to be successful, put the infrastructure in place, and we were looking for ways to help those businesses do that.”
The county plans to give out grants of between $5,000 and $25,000 through its Safe Spaces & Places program. About 43 businesses applied for these grants, asking for a total of about $800,000, but Johnson said the department is still going through applications and validating the expenses to see if they are eligible for reimbursement.
About 61 businesses filled out the grant inquiry form, and more than half were restaurants and wineries/breweries.
So far, the county is in the process of giving out a total of $2.8 million of the $5 million in CARES Act funds that has been allocated for economic development by the Board of Supervisors.
The city considered closing some streets to facilitate outdoor dining, but ran into challenges with topography. Many restaurants offering outdoor dining are also on the Downtown Mall.
In suspending parking regulations, the city’s ordinance did not allow restaurants to use public parking spots. However, Engel said some restaurants have been able to use public spots by renting them for a day and having proper safety measures. Engel said the city is willing to work with restaurants that possibly could use parking spaces for dining.
The city deferred rental fees for outdoor dining spaces on the Downtown Mall during the summer. Although a communication was sent out recently indicating the fees would be due this month, Engel said the City Council is considering measures to lessen the impact on businesses.
The city has installed advertising signs to rebuild consumer confidence in safety measures while distributing personal protective equipment. Officials also are helping to establish and mark designated curbside parking spots.
The city also is providing technical assistance to help businesses apply for federal and state grants.
Joellen Hirschey, a manager at Sal’s Cafe Italia, said the restaurant is only offering outdoor dining right now and isn’t sure if they’ll offer indoor seating in the winter.
Hirschey said Sal’s has been offering curbside pickup and family-style meals.
“Some people feel comfortable going out but there’s still a lot of people who would want to stay home and stay as safe as possible,” she said. “So it’s nice to be giving them some sense of normalcy while they’re staying safe.”
Sal’s already has loaded up on heaters for outdoor dining.
“We’re definitely doing the best we can,” Hirschey said.
Charlotte Shelton, one of the owners of Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle CiderWorks, said they received one grant from the county that went toward payroll and that they are in the process of applying to another. For this winter, she said they’re planning to buy outside space heaters that, if the weather is tolerable, will allow for outdoor seating to continue at proper distances.
“What we’re planning on doing is seeing if we can retrofit the plan that we’ve been using,” she said. “We have tables that are scattered across the lawn and on the patio, and also our orchard room can be open on three sides. So if we can do space heater-type things, we should be able to accommodate not a huge crowd but a fair number of people comfortably and safely.”
Shelton said business at the cidery has been steady so far this fall, with many people stopping by on weekdays, as well.
“We’ve been able to keep our head above water,” she said. “ I can’t tell you that we’re tearing it up and making a fortune, but on the other hand, we have been able to hold our own and are very grateful for our clientele.”
The staff is careful about observing all the protocols, she said, “because there is no margin for error in this stuff.” They’re wearing gloves and masks and are sanitizing “everything in sight.”
“We need to add a couple staff people to keep that up, we realized, because people do start thinking of apples and cider in the fall, even though cider is a year-round libation,” she said.
Vintage Virginia Apples and the CoveGarden Ruritan Club are still holding their annual Harvest Festival, but this year it will be done as a drive-thru Nov. 7 and 8.
“It’s not going to be any big money raiser for us, but every little bit helps and it will certainly help the Ruritans,” Shelton said. “And then hopefully by next year, we’ll be back in business.”