GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you’ve gone out to eat or even for a walk through downtown Grand Rapids, you’ve likely noticed portioned off sections of the street filled with outdoor seating. 

They’re called social zones, a collaborative effort between the city of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. to help give struggling businesses a lifeline amid the pandemic another opportunity to succeed. 

The city of Grand Rapids approved the plan for social zones back when the pandemic first began, and executive orders forbid customers from dining in. These zones close off or barricade portions of streets like Bridge and Oakes streets. They work by giving restaurants access to outdoor seating whereas before it may not have existed. 

“There have been few if any downsides. For most businesses, they’ve been a big success,” Mark Miller, managing director, planning and design of DGRI said. “It’s obviously a balance having something like this in the street. You don’t want to obstruct too much traffic and remove all available parking but generally, traffic problems have been minimal if any.”

The zones work best when the weather is warm when people don’t mind eating outside and congregating outside. Initially, knocking out two birds with one stone, but now, with colder weather fast approaching the zones are becoming less appealing. Businesses who have come to rely on them are hoping they stay. 

“We’re thinking to make it an event where people go out and they bundle up with blankets in a community effort to support local businesses. It’s going to be a lot of different things like that,” Miller said. “Most of the work ahead centers around heaters and what kind of enclosures can we make to keep wind and snow out. So, I think we have a variety of different options that we’re exploring.”

They’re exploring them together with the Grand Rapids Fire Department and other city leaders. 

“The plan right now is for the city to expand this policy that allows for these zones to exist into May of next year,” Miller said. “I think that conversation is planned for a future city commission meeting.”

The plan still needs to be fleshed out further. How they’ll manage to clean and sanitize any structures they build or how they’ll remove snow from them and how they’ll safely power any heaters they provide to the zones; all remains to be seen. 

“We just want to do all we can to help these businesses,” Miller said. “So far we think it’s been going really well. Lots of the restaurants we’re talking to have had pretty good summers. One in particular had a better August in 2020 than they did in 2019. A lot of that equates to this outdoor seating, we just need to find a way to keep the momentum going.”

As of right now, DGRI social zone initiative runs through November.