Outdoor social zones: Are they here to stay?

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Before the pandemic, you probably didn’t dine much outdoors in the middle of winter or walk around your city’s downtown with a drink in hand. Now, that could be the new norm.

More and more outdoor social zones are popping up across West Michigan and with warmer weather fast approaching, the already popular dining districts will likely see even more people than they did in the winter. 

“I had seen these districts popping up. I saw the Rockford one and then at first when I heard about it, I wasn’t so sure because it was like our downtown is spread out. But then when the restaurants got shut down again, we needed to do something,” said Lowell City Manager Mike Burns. 

It started as a temporary solution to a problem. With indoor dining closed, city leaders didn’t have many options. It was either find creative ways for people to eat safely, or risk losing local businesses.

“Being as drawn out as this pandemic, you know, at least the lockdowns were, I thought we would lose more [businesses], but we didn’t. I thought maybe we would lose a restaurant. We didn’t. Matter of fact, we have, I believe we’re going to have two more coming in the next year. So, we’re lucky in that aspect,” Burns said. 

He added that he doesn’t see the Showboat City Social District going anywhere anytime soon.

Rockford also voted Monday to keep the closure of Main Street in effect until the end of June for its outdoor refreshment area, RORA

The road will reopen to traffic starting July 1, but the RORA district will remain in place. People will still be able to order an alcoholic drink from participating restaurants and enjoy it outside the downtown area within the district. 

Muskegon, which launched its social district last fall, has expanded from four blocks to 12. The manager of the city’s downtown development authority Dave Alexander says a district like this is something they’ve wanted for years.

A Downtown Muskegon Social District sticker on a beer.

“We had some people explore it, but we never got legislation that was actually introduced. COVID changed everything in 2020,” he said. 

On July 1, the Social District Permit law was signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, giving local governments the green light. Close to 40 communities across the state have established social districts so far under this law. 

“Each of us has sort of used it in our own way. Some large, Grand Rapids and Muskegon, some small like Northville and a Petoskey, and then others are continuing to explore it. I think it’s something that will be around to stay,” Alexander said. 

In West Michigan, the cities that have licensed social districts, according to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, include Allegan, Saugatuck, Hastings, Battle Creek, Marshall, Kalamazoo, Vicksburg, Grand Rapids, Lowell, Rockford, Greenville, Muskegon and Newago.

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