‘Village of friends’ gets creative to help downtown Holland restaurant reopen

Sometimes, building a fence is not about keeping people out, it’s about inviting more people in. 

Downtown Holland — like other Ottawa County communities, including Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Zeeland — is turning outdoor space into extra dining capacity to promote social distancing and allow restaurants to seat more people. 
Volunteers built the 80-foot fence that allowed the Curragh Irish Pub to extend its patio.

When the Curragh Irish Pub was looking to expand its outdoor space recently, owners found they had a lot of extra hands. Pub owner Sophia Leongas says longtime friend Greg Snook took charge. What began as an idea for adding planters shifted to installing a fence. Some donated scrap wood that was torched to give the perimeter a rustic feel. Nearly a dozen people came together to help with the construction. 

“I have a village of friends that I'm just so blessed and grateful for,” says Leongas. “This didn't cost me a dime. Our patio business is everything. It gets us through the winter, basically. This is doable; we can make this work. We can make it through the summer. And, granted, we don't know what to expect, but at least we're going to give it our best shot.”

‘In this together’

When Holland Mayor Nathan Bocks heard the story behind the fence, he asked the city to make a short video.

Sophia Leongas, owner of the Curragh Irish Pub, next to the fence.“There is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration in the city like I have never seen before. Everybody has gotten along really well together, but there is this feeling we’re all in this together now. We’re going to work well with each other,” Bocks says.

He was impressed with how well everyone did during the first weekend of the return of dine-in service. The sunny weather drew crowds to the newly opened restaurants and diners were practicing social distancing. 

Safety protocols

Businesses are implementing a number of safety protocols to protect their employees and customers from the spread of COVID-19. 

Among these are front-door signs outlining safety precautions and occupancy restrictions, installing hand-sanitizing stations, requiring employees and customers to wear masks, increased sanitizing of all surfaces, and ensuring that customers practice safe social distancing of 6 feet at all times. 

Per Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent executive order, retailers will be able to operate with 25% of total occupancy, while restaurants will be limited to 50% occupancy. 

Using outdoor space

To help businesses navigate these new occupancy restrictions, Downtown Holland is allowing retailers and restaurants to expand their business operations onto the sidewalk and into parking spaces for the time being. 

A dozen volunteers built a patio fence for the Curragh Irish Pub.Retailers are allowed to display merchandise outside, while restaurants can expand their current sidewalk café operations into the parking spaces in front of their business. Some are using plants to mark outdoor space while others are using fences. The city relocated cement planters to create safe zones. 

The plan was developed by the Downtown Development Authority and the Principal Shopping District, two city committees made up of downtown stakeholders. Before making a final decision, they are giving restaurants a few weeks to try out expanding seating into sidewalks and some parking spaces. For now, they aren't closing down Eighth Street to vehicular traffic — taking a different approach than some Michigan downtowns. 

Final preparations

The downtown reopened gradually a few weeks ago, after the governor’s executive order let shops open on June 4 and restaurants on June 8.  A handful of restaurants have delayed their opening by a week or two to put final preparations in place to operate safely. 

“Our business owners have been working extremely hard these past few weeks to ensure that the proper protocol is in place, so customers can shop and dine safely within their businesses,” says Downtown Holland Marketing Coordinator Kara de Alvare. 
Greg Snook in his workshop.
The businesses are grateful for everyone who supported them while their doors were closed, she says. 

Online options remain

Customers uncomfortable with shopping in-store are invited to visit shopdowntownholland.com to shop online and place orders for delivery or curbside pickup from their favorite retailers. Likewise, customers who prefer to dine at home can visit dinedowntownholland.com for a list of restaurants offering takeout services.

Leongas says she is grateful for the support of customers during the three months her restaurant could offer only takeout and curbside delivery.

“We are blessed with the support of the community for the takeouts, everybody stepping in and buying gift certificates, and spreading the word that we are open,” Leongas says. 

Finding a way to help

Greg Snook says he was thinking about how much he wanted to help the community during quarantine when he came up with the fence idea. He feels a special connection to the restaurant because of his friendship with Leongas and her husband, Dave Jurgensen. His teenage daughter, Sonora, also works at the Curragh. 

“It’s actually amazing how quickly that came together,” Snook says of the 80-foot fence made from donated Gentex pallets and a pile of wood his dad had collected for a forgotten project. The reinforced fence with planters and dividers adds 24 outdoor seats. The wood was charred to resemble the aged dark wood of the pub’s interior.

“I love woodworking, and I always have made projects for friends, but they very seldom come out looking like I envisioned,” says Snook, who has a woodshop. “I wish I had the energy and the materials to make fences for all the restaurants on Eighth Street. They all need help. Everybody is struggling really hard, and I'm glad I could help at least someone.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.

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