GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For months, Grand Rapids bars and restaurants have relied on outdoor dining “social zones” to survive a slump created by dining restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Now with winter creeping closer and no end to COVID-19 in sight, city leaders are giving the initiative a boost.

Wednesday, the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority approved up to $243,000 to help businesses winterize their al fresco experience.

Approximately $43,000 of the funds will go toward purchasing 164 concrete barriers the city was previously renting to create social zone borders. City officials have reached a deal with owner Bush Concrete Products to put rental fees paid from June through October toward the price.

Mark Miller, planning and design director for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., says buying the barricades provides business owners some assurance the program will carry on through the next season. Purchasing the barriers also allows more flexibility in their use – now artists can create permanent murals on the 6,000-pound structures, and businesses can use them to anchor canopies or tents.

Most of the approved funding will go toward the Winter Ready grant program. While DGRI is “currently finessing” the grant program, according to Miller, each business could get up to $10,000 for purchasing supplies to winterize their outdoor seating areas. Eligible equipment includes canopies, tents, heating elements and lighting.

Any requests above $10,000 would be matched by the DDA with the stipulation that bids for $15,000 or more must be approved by the authority.

DGRI President and CEO Tim Kelly said if more than 20 businesses apply for grants through the Winter Ready program, DGRI would ask the DDA for more funding to help.

“The street seating saved us in the summer because although we had minimum seating inside, we had all this available outside,” House of Wine owner Jim Lynch said.

Lynch is looking to build an outdoor dining destination, currently working on a demo structure to show the city before getting final approval.

“It’s individualized,” Lynch said about the structure. “Whether it’s two people or five people, we can sit them down in here and its completely separate from everyone else.”

DGRI first deployed social zones in June. Since then, the number of businesses offering outdoor seating has increased by 56%, according to Miller.

A DGRI report last month concluded pedestrian counts were higher in two social zones when compared to the prior year.

Late last month, Grand Rapids’ city commission approved extending the social zone program through May 2021.

— News 8’s Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.