Outdoor dining fast-tracked

By Meg Hill

Arrangements to kick start Victoria’s outdoor dining program have been sped up in preparation for Melbourne’s reopening. 

A new planning exemption was announced by Minister for Planning Richard Wynne on October 21, and by end of the same week the City of Melbourne had issued more than 1000 outdoor dining permits – representing more than 98 per cent of applications received.

The planning exemption allows existing cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs – which reopened on October 28 – to use existing outdoor spaces as well as nearby parks and public land to accommodate and serve patrons without the need for a planning permit.

In the wake of the exemption announcement, the council was busy establishing ready-made outdoor dining “parklets” across the city, including in car parking spaces on Flinders Lane and Bourke St.

The Minister for Planning Richard Wynne said the exemption was about removing hurdles for hospitality businesses.

“I can announce that the government has removed all hurdles to allow hospitality to expand its operations outdoors,” Mr Wynne said at a press conference on October 21.

The new provisions also provide exemptions from the need to obtain planning permits for construction of temporary buildings, the provision of car parking, and the sale and consumption of liquor – subject to conditions.

The exemptions will apply while Victoria remains under a State of Emergency, and for 12 months after the State of Emergency has been lifted. Liquor licence, public health matters and public land manager requirements may still need to be met along with council administered local laws – including local planning permits.

Ryan and Laura from Axil Coffee Roasters on Bourke Street prepare for outdoor dining.

The CBD has been a focus of the future outdoor dining program, with a $100 million deal between the state government and the City of Melbourne to fund its roll out in the city.

But not all CBD residents have been happy with outdoor dining arrangements proposed since the program was originally announced in September.

A group of CBD residents have met with the Lord Mayor Sally Capp and City of Melbourne officers working on the program to discuss concerns.

One of those residents, Jenny Eltham, said discussions with council had been constructive but residents were concerned about the speed with which arrangements were being made.

“I think the council has gone through a very good effort in taking on board some of the residents’ concerns,” Ms Eltham said.

“I still worry, and I think everyone’s worried, with the fact it’s all being done so quickly.”

Ms Eltham, who lives on Punch Lane in the CBD, said some of the specific concerns were with the lengths of permits being issued by the council and the prospect of regular night-time events.

“They were giving blanket permits for 12 months which residents felt was way too long, it didn’t have a temporary feel about it,” Ms Eltham said.

Following discussions with residents, the council added an option to shorten permits.

Although residents complained about the lack of a “temporary feel” to the program, while announcing the new planning exemption on October 21 Premier Daniel Andrews implied the program was likely to stick around for longer than the summer.

Mr Andrews said the government was “planning changes that will facilitate not just COVID-safe outdoor dining this summer, but what I think may well be a feature of our city and our state for many summers to come”.

Another resident of Punch Lane, Jacquie Giuffrida, said the arrangements were not appropriate for areas with low-rise residential areas.

“The city is a diverse place and people seem to have this idea that everybody in the city is in high-rises away from the noise of the street, but that’s incorrect,” she said.

“There’s lot of people in low-rise or street level houses like we are in Punch Lane. Our front doors are on the street and our windows are on our street, so the prospect of people dining outside your front door and bedroom window would be the same for people in the suburbs having people dining in their front yards.”

City of Melbourne Chief Executive Officer Justin Hanney said applications for extended outdoor dining were being assessed on a case-by-case basis and with consideration of different factors – including the needs of residents.

“Guidelines are available to help businesses operate outside in a way that maintains safety and amenity for residents, businesses and pedestrians,” he said.

“We’ve had virtual meetings and phone calls with resident groups and individual residents, and their views and needs have been taken into consideration when developing the guidelines and assessing applications.”

A Department of Health and Human Services Victoria (DHHS) spokesperson told CBD News the government’s “cautious steps” towards re-opening was guided by advice from the Chief Health Officer, data and interstate and international evidence.

“We know the risk of infection is much higher in inside settings which is why we are encouraging hospitality business to open up outdoors where possible,” the spokesperson said.

University of Melbourne Professor John Mathews, an expert in epidemiology and a former senior public health adviser for the federal government, said the health rationale for outdoor activity was supported by the current available evidence.

“I think there are a number of issues, one is that outdoors there’s more ventilation obviously, so if there’s airborne virus it’s not going to get concentrated inside, it will drift away,” he said.

“The other thing about being outdoors is that if you’re in the sunlight or if the light is reasonably bright ultraviolet light, which comes with the sunlight, is quite good at killing virus.”

“And when people are sitting outside, they’re able to be more distant from each other.”

“So, all those things together provide a general rationale for preferring outdoor eating as opposed to indoor eating as a way of minimising virus transmission and that general conclusion is supported by the limited evidence we’ve got about the virus transmission.”

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