Coronavirus: How outdoor drinking could be lifesaver for Oregon District businesses

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

What to know about the Oregon District drinking outdoor district

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Oregon District bars and restaurants are going to have to make big changes when they are allowed to reopen to try to keep customers and staff healthy.

But the Oregon District has been designated as Dayton’s first outdoor drinking district, which could be a godsend at a time when patrons are going to be required to keep a safe distance apart.

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Bar and restaurant owners say to-go drinks and outdoor alcohol consumption might help replace lost revenue from reduced sit-down capacity and decreased food sales.

Street beers and cocktails could begin next month in the Oregon District, and owners say sip-and-stroll outdoor drinking could be just what the district needs during this new normal of social separation.

"We hope this encourages people to come down and enjoy our little coroner of the universe," said Natalie Skilliter, co-owner of Corner Kitchen.

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Credit: DaytonDailyNews

What to know about the Oregon District drinking outdoor district

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

In mid-March, the city of Dayton approved its first designated outdoor refreshment area in the Oregon District the same week that the state ordered bars and restaurants to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday announced that restaurants and bars can reopen outside seating on May 15 and indoor seating on May 21.

Bars and restaurants will have to create barriers or at least 6-feet of space between tables to keep customers safe, said Treva Weaver, chair of the Ohio restaurant advisory group, which helped figure out a plan for the industry to reopen.

Establishments may need to create dividers like high-backed booths, walls and Plexiglass, she said.

Some businesses do not have a lot of indoor or patio space, which means complying with these requirements could result in reduced seating.

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But the open-air drinking district could be part of the solution on East Fifth Street.

The new refreshment area will benefit Oregon District businesses tremendously, because customers can minimize interactions and socially distance outside of establishments, said Steve Tieber, owner of the Dublin Pub.

“In short, this would be a great time to push that through quickly,” Tieber said.

The Oregon District Business Association in recent weeks has been talking with the city about implementing the outdoor refreshment area and has worked to iron out logistical details, said Kyle Babirad, the association’s president.

There’s growing interest in outdoor drinking among establishments in the district because it will allow patrons to maintain a comfortable distance while also bringing a whole new dimension to the already popular area, he said.

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Corner Kitchen originally was not going to serve to-go alcoholic drinks because of concerns it would interfere with the dining and guest experience, said Skilliter, who is also the treasurer of the Oregon District Business Association.

But the restaurant is restructuring its offerings and layout in anticipation of reduced dine-in capacity, and to-go drinks could be a revenue solution, she said.

“I am hoping we will be able to sell more drinks, because essentially we have to be able to do more volume,” she said.

Corner Kitchen, like many restaurants, typically makes 70% of its revenue from food and 30% from alcohol sales, Skilliter said, but if there are fewer tables, carryout and alcohol sales will become more important to the bottom line.

Carryout alcoholic beverages, which the state began allowing last month, significantly helped sales at some local businesses, she said. Alcohol sales tend to have higher margins and require less labor.

The Oregon District Business Association is working to acquire signage, additional trash cans and other necessities to launching the refreshment area.

Bars that have tables and chairs that can comply with the state’s safety guidelines will be allowed to reopen in coming weeks, but the state is not allowing bars to reopen yet that only have open, “congregant” areas like dance floors, officials said.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she thinks the outdoor drinking district designation could help the Oregon District and has said she hopes it helps create the most popular outdoor refreshment area in the state.

But Whaley said the city will monitor its operations to ensure people maintain socially distancing rules, because if they don’t, it will have to be shut down.

If too many people are on the street, it would create a dangerous situation, since COVID-19 is going to remain a public health threat until more testing is available, she said.

“Until we have testing in place in this community, I won’t feel comfortable,” she said.

“I am nervous about people going places until we have testing fully in place in this community,” she said.

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