2021 Initiative

Increase flexibility for local businesses trying to reopen

Increase flexibility for local businesses trying to reopen


Businesses must have flexibility to modify their business models in a changing environment, but restrictive licensing and zoning requirements can stand in the way.   

Graham King found that business license regulations often do not reflect the reality of running a business. In his hometown of D.C., Graham found more information on how to open a billiard hall than a gym—which does not make much sense in 2020. The city’s licensing agency could not understand his personal fitness studio business. He ended up hiring and paying an expediter to complete the permitting.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, cities throughout the nation took swift action to help their communities adjust to the changing public health environment and they found creative ways to provide relief to businesses in a challenging economic landscape. Cities’ willingness to provide more flexibility to businesses during the stay-at-home orders was crucial, but it is critical to local economies that city governments continue to increase flexibility for businesses.   

Why should city governments continue to increase business flexibility? 

Many businesses realized they needed to get creative and modify their business models to stay afloat during the pandemic. But oftentimes, restrictive licensing and zoning requirements can stand in the way.  Permits for additional activities are expensive and time-consuming to obtain, and narrow license categories leave little room to grow. Granting businesses the flexibility to adapt to an ever-changing environment will allow them to keep their doors open and keep people employed while addressing the needs of their communities.   

To give businesses the flexibility they need to meet the challenges of today’s economy, cities should: 

  • Allow businesses to modify their business activities and provide services beyond what would normally be permitted under their narrow license category or categories.  
    • Boston lifted regulations to allow all restaurants and bars that serve food to offer food for take-out and delivery without the required take-out license. 
    • Tucson granted restaurants the ability to operate as pop-up grocery stores without changes to their business licenses or needing additional permits.
  • Simplify and fast-track the process of getting a permit for public way uses and outdoor seating so that businesses can quickly add sidewalk sales and al fresco dining options for customers.  
    • Tampa established Restaurant & Retail Recovery Zones which close street traffic in key commercial areas and convert them into open space for outdoor dining and retail shopping. 
    • Chicago created a similar program with an Expanded Outdoor Dining Permit for outdoor restaurant dining. It also established a fast-track application process that can issue the permit in five business days. 
  • Reform zoning rules to allow for more seasonal or temporary businesses, such as farmers markets or pop-up shops.  
    • DC offers a special certificate of occupancy to accommodate seasonal and temporary businesses, including farmers markets and other outdoor events of limited duration. 
  • Ease restrictions on take-out and delivery sales of alcohol beverages so bars and restaurants can have access to additional sources of revenue. 
    • Los Angeles issued an executive order to allow restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for take-out and delivery. 
  • Ease parking requirements that force business owners to lease space or reconfigure.  
    • These requirements can be waived to allow businesses to open with fewer delays and costs. 
  • Be flexible with businesses that have been grandfathered in under restrictive zoning codes.  
    • Allow them to adapt their business models without losing legal nonconforming status.  

The economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak will be felt long after our communities regain a sense of normalcy or adapt to a “new normal.” Our nation’s local businesses will need their city governments to continue to increase business flexibility in order for them to keep their doors open, provide jobs, and continue to play a vital role in local economies. 

Download this PDF for more information.

[templatera id=”343″]