Queen City bars and restaurants can once again serve alcohol after 11 p.m. following a city council decision to repeal a limit on libations.
The council initially voted in August to end alcohol sales early each evening in an attempt to prevent returning college students from spreading the coronavirus around town. The order did not apply to retail alcohol sales.
But in the subsequent weeks, Burlington has seen no spike in cases tied to kids on campus. And city staff recommended the council reevaluate the order this month given the negative impacts on local businesses. The Church Street Marketplace has recently seen a significant dip in visitors, according to a memo from Chief Innovation Officer Brian Lowe.
"We've all heard from the bar owners and restaurant owners who are legitimately expressing frustration about lost business," Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said. "We've also heard from the science that says ... the COVID numbers are not there to justify these continued [hours]."
Limits on crowd sizes — approved as part of the original order — remain in place. Indoor crowds are limited to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25. The council will consider extending or repealing those provisions on November 9 — after Halloween, which presents "a continued elevated risk from large group activity," Lowe wrote.
Later in the meeting, councilors unanimously approved a zoning change to allow a low-barrier homeless shelter to open at the Champlain Inn this winter.
ANEW Place, the nonprofit that operates the city's only such shelter, is seeking to transform the inn on Shelburne Road into a 50-bed shelter. City zoning limits shelters to 26 beds in that district, however, which prompted a zoning amendment "for the extent of the current COVID-19 state of emergency."
The city plans to introduce a more permanent zoning change, but "that process will take 3-6 months, too long to wait when the City has a commitment to provide shelter for an otherwise homeless population that, without this shelter, will have no protection from imminent freezing temperatures," city officials wrote in a memo.
Mayor Miro Weinberger supported the vote, saying the inn presents "a better way to serve this population in the winter."
"This would really be a significant change in the safety that's available to people, for Burlington, if this goes through," he added.
Guests at the city's low-barrier shelter have been shuffled around several times since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. ANEW Place closed its South Winooski Avenue shelter — which had poor ventilation and no space to physically distance — on March 26, moving guests to rented trailers at the North Beach campground. They began tenting there when the trailer lease ended in June.
In July, ANEW Place and city officials applied for $1.3 million in federal CARES Act funds to renovate 20 shipping containers into 47 micro sleeping units. The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, which dispenses those funds, denied that request but supports ANEW Place's new proposal, the city's memo says.
Also Monday, councilors delayed a vote on a resolution to allow backyard fires by referring the measure to the city's Board of Health.
Introduced by Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), the "COVID fires" resolution was designed to allow outdoor socialization during the coronavirus pandemic this winter. Residents would have to apply for a permit and have their pit inspected by the fire chief.
But several councilors and members of the public raised concerns about the health effects of wood smoke.
"We're in a global ecological crisis and a global respiratory pandemic, and we live in a state with one of the highest rates of asthma," Al Larsen said during the meeting's public forum. "If we want to find ways to commune outdoors, we have to do so in ways that don't contribute to and exacerbate the problems we already face."
Shannon, who has asthma, said the proposal was meant to balance some people's concerns over air quality with others' mental health needs during what could be an isolating winter. She suggested city dwellers would be more likely to have their windows closed during the cold months, lessening the effects of smoke.
The council's vote asks the Board of Health to return a recommendation by the body's next meeting on October 19. If council ultimately approves the measure, Burlingtonians could have backyard blazes as soon as November 1; the temporary program would run through April.
Watch the full meeting, courtesy of Town Meeting TV, below.