Janesville City Council member Paul Benson plans to propose a grant program that would help restaurants and bars outfit their establishments to serve patrons outdoors during cold weather.
Funding for the program would be granted as an amendment to the 2021 budget, which the council is workshopping for December approval.
Benson’s amendment would allocate $50,000 from the city’s general fund in 2021 to support 25 grants of $2,000 each to help bars and restaurants make changes that would allow outdoor seating in colder months.
An example would be buying outdoor propane heaters, Benson said in an email to The Gazette.
Benson’s reason for the amendment, he said, is two-fold. It would help slow the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging people to gather outside rather than inside, and it would help responsible business owners retain customers.
Outdoor gatherings are considered safer because there is more ventilation and it is easier to social distance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Face coverings and social distancing are still recommended at outdoor gatherings, according to the CDC.
Under an emergency order from Gov. Tony Evers, the state currently requires businesses such as bars and restaurants to limit indoor patrons to 25% of their buildings’ capacities. The order is in effect until Nov. 6.
If the amendment is approved, the city grants would not be available until 2021, Benson said.
He said council member Jim Farrell supports the amendment.
“But I just feel like we (the council) have to do something,” Benson said. “I’m sure we will still be dealing with this in February, March, April, when there are enough ‘nice’ days that people will be willing to sit outside.”
Benson said he got input from three downtown restaurant owners before drafting the amendment. He declined to name the business owners.
One restaurant owner, he said, cannot afford to buy heaters or other equipment because the business was shut down for two months earlier this year.
Details on the approval process for the grants would be left up to city staff, with guidance saying businesses need to submit plans for how they would use the money, Benson said.
This would not be the city’s first program aimed at helping businesses through the pandemic.
The city in June began offering $5,000 microloans for businesses that did not qualify for other loan programs.
The city also streamlined its process for restaurants and bars to get approval for outdoor seating. The ordinance for the new process will sunset Oct. 30.
No plans have been proposed yet to extend the ordinance past Oct. 30, said Maggie Darr, assistant to the city manager.
Temporary outdoor seating had been approved for Applebee’s; Barkley’s Burgers, Brews & Dawgs; Whiskey Ranch; Rock County Brewing Company; O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub; and Lark.
The city’s proposed 2021 budget is balanced as of the initial budget presentation Oct. 13.
The budget calls for a 2.1% reduction in spending compared to 2020 and a 0.6% increase in the tax levy.
The council will meet Thursday night for a budget study session, where proposed amendments could be discussed further.