The Sarasota City Commission on Monday voted to extend a program that allows restaurants to expand sidewalk seating and set up tables in street-side parking spaces for free until the end of the year. The program was created last year to give a boost to restaurants struggling because of the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of restaurants have taken advantage of the policy, but concerns over the cost and the loss of parking spaces for retail shops prompted the city to revisit the program. The city estimates that it loses $12-$15 per day per spot in parking fees, which has cost between $122,000 and $153,000 so far. Roughly 35 parking spaces are being used for outdoor dining.

Knick's Tavern & Grill is one of the Sarasota restaurants that has taken advantage of loosened outdoor dining rules since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

According to restaurant owners who spoke Monday, most guests still prefer outdoor dining. Mike Martin, who opened Reef Cakes in March, said 98 percent of the reservation requests at his restaurant are for outdoor dining. Knickole Barger, who owns Knick's Tavern & Grill with her father, said most reservations at her restaurant are also for outside tables, three of which are located in a city parking space.

"Fellow restaurateurs and neighbors in our business need to continue to provide and encourage outdoor dining as an option for our guests," Barger said Monday. "Many guests are not comfortable dining inside for that length of time."

Barger said the city is in a "transition zone" between the height of the pandemic and a return to normalcy, and asked the commission to extend its looser outdoor dining rules. The city also voted to allow restaurants to set up small tents to cover their outdoor tables, but they must be removed when the restaurants are closed.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert said Monday that she would like to see the program made permanent. "I love seeing all the outdoor dining, the energy that it brings," she said. If that happens, restaurants could perhaps be charged a fee to compensate for the lost parking revenue, she said.

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