Bloomington restaurants and bars will have an opportunity to add or expand outdoor seating in the near future.
City Manager Tim Gleason has been given the authority to temporarily close streets, city parking lots and alleys to help businesses expand their outdoor footprints. The amendment to the COVID-19 Local Emergency Declaration was approved during Tuesday night's virtual City Council meeting.
“We want our businesses to survive and thrive; we want people to come back to work,” said Mayor Tari Renner. “But we want it to be safely.”
The plan ties in with Gov. JB Pritzker’s recent announcement that restaurants and bars will be able to serve customers seated outdoors in Phase 3 of his Restore Illinois plan. The city remains on track to reach Phase 3 on Friday.
The council voted unanimously in favor of the measure during Tuesday’s 2-hour, 15-minute meeting. Gleason said that while the authority to grant the temporary closures rests with him, other city officials will be consulted.
“A lot of players are going to be involved in this,” Gleason said. “Fire and police chiefs have a component to see if (proposals) will work. Public works – as we increase foot traffic, we’ve got to keep the downtown clean.
“I think we’ll get a rhythm to this after we get a few things going and it will catch on … At the end of the day, we’re going to find a way and make this happen.”
Renner said he and council member Jamie Mathy recently met with several downtown business owners interested in setting up outdoor seating.
“They’re interested and anxious to move forward as long as we are consistent with state guidelines and state law, and in some cases common sense,” said Renner. “We want to say to people, ‘We want to be creative. You be creative, work with us.’”
Under Pritzker’s rules for outdoor dining, tables must be six feet apart and distanced from the sidewalks. Employees will be required to wear masks. Indoor services will not be restored until Phase 4 of the restoration plan.
It’s unclear yet if any closures will be approved in time to allow outdoor dining this weekend. While Mathy said he sees no reason why plans would be delayed and businesses prevented from beginning outdoor service on Friday, Donna Boelen said she favored a more measured approach.
“It’s not that I’m against businesses starting to open. It was actually my recommendation three weeks ago that we do al fresco dining, then of course the governor approved that. I want it done right, not rushed,” Boelen said.
Council member Julie Emig said increased outdoor seating gives the city “an opportunity not to go back to what was” in terms of dining possibilities.
“We can really rethink how we use our public spaces, and that’s exciting,” she said.
Plans To Reopen
In his COVID-19 update, Gleason said city facilities will have access by appointment only beginning June 1. He also said currently more than 200 Bloomington employees are working from home and city offices will staff no more than 50% of their employees through the month of June.
Renner sharply criticized McLean County Board members who still want to adopt an accelerated regional reopening plan.
“Most of the County Board members that were quoted in the (media) don’t know what they’re talking about, let’s put it that way,” Renner said, specifically mentioning Bloomington’s Chuck Erickson.
Renner is one of several local officials who backed off the Restore Heart of Illinois plan (HOI) after Pritzker threatened to pull pandemic-related federal funding to counties that violated his timeline.
Responding to council member Scott Black’s question seeking details about the county’s intentions, the mayor called Erickson’s claim that Renner and Peoria counterpart Jim Ardis still favored a faster reopening in spite of Pritzker’s warning “just inaccurate.”
“I can’t imagine that the county would ever get things wrong,” Renner said sarcastically. “It’s not a good news source.”
The meeting also included a pair of public hearings, with the first including discussion of how to allocate $420,000 of federal funds to address COVID-19 concerns. The city has proposed $270,000 of direct aid for housing, food, medical and childcare assistance, with the remainder targeted for economic development.
“The COVID-19 money is very specific in that it has to be used to meet unmet needs in the community,” city grants director Jennifer Toney said during the public hearing that featured six public commenters and lasted 56 minutes. A vote on a final plan is expected at the next meeting on June 8.
The second public hearing addressed a petition by Eastview Christian Church for the city to vacate a north-south alley adjacent to property at 401 W. Union St. so the church can expand its existing parking lot. The council later approved the request and waived a $9,000 compensation fee.
In his monthly report, Finance Director Scott Rathbun said some “pleasant surprises” have allowed the city to increase its revenue projections by $1 million after taking a conservative approach to assessing the impact of COVID-19.
“About a month ago – it seems like a long time ago – we were assuming there was going to be about a $2 million net hit,” Rathbun said of fiscal year 2020 expectations.
“Some things are going to do better now than what we projected,” he added, noting food-and-beverage taxes came in $70,000 better than their revised expectations for March, while hotel-motel taxes were $38,000 better than anticipated.
Rathbun cautioned that “a lot of things are still in motion” and a better financial picture will come into focus next month.
“We’re waiting for that first full month of sheltering financials to come in so we can get a real good grip or handle on that effect,” he said.
In other action, the council:
- approved a $1.85 million contract with Hoerr Construction for a closed-circuit television sewer assessment project to clean and inspect 189 miles of the city's sewer system;
- agreed to purchase a $36,000 Ford transit van for the Bloomington Police Department's SWAT team and two $26,000 Ford pickups for the Public Works Department;
- followed a staff recommendation to reject bids to buy two 14-passenger buses, pushing the replacement purchases to the 2022 fiscal year;
- approved $658,000 worth of John M. Scott Health Care Grant awards for the 2021 fiscal year (council members Mathy, Black and Jeff Crabill recused themselves from the vote);
- awarded a $58,000 contract to Stark Excavating for construction of the Wittenberg Woods Park Trail;
- authorized a $55,000 legal settlement with a victim of identity theft who was arrested for attempting to cash fraudulent checks at a currency exchange; and
- amended the city code to prohibit the sale of tobacco, nicotine and e-cigarette products to anyone under age 21.
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