Local regulation of land development and operation guards against reckless and self-absorbed conduct by landowners. Zoning codes came along in the early 20th Century to diminish incidences of factories locating near residential areas for the convenience of their owners needing readily available labor, before use of autos was widespread. The result was contamination of rented residential quarters with fugitive dust and airborne poisons, as well as contamination of drinking water. People began owning residences and land in cities used for other non-factory purposes, and the regulatory bureaucracy grew. As zoning regulation became more commonplace, the pendulum swung sometimes toward pervasive regulation of ever finer-grained details of city neighborhoods. In moments like the Covid-19 pestilence, we need to recall that, temporarily at least, aesthetics is a less compelling virtue than economic survival. Here’s a small suggestion that could have a ripple effect of some magnitude in the current circumstances. First of all, let me assure you I have no political persuasion in the matter, since I’ve represented single unit (mom and pop) restaurant operators, corporations having multiple units in the Phoenix Valley, and fast-food franchisees alike. Among them, they employ more than three thousand persons. Well, until lately they did.

The Phoenix City Council, and other communities around the Valley, have halted the primary functions of full-service restaurants and bars. It seems to me that banning in-property dining practices will serve to divide prepared-food providers into two groups. The fast food (and quick beverage-serving) franchisees will suffer but will survive because social distancing is in their business model. That’s because, I understand anecdotally, virtually all of them sell most of their food and drinks through their drive-thru lanes already. (Except those like Dominoes that are essentially only in-and-out pickup/pay, of course.) The small, less-well marketed restaurants are getting clobbered, even those with locally stronger brands. Ironically, this means the “winners” in this divide will be the ones selling less healthy food and soft drinks as standard fare. I’m not judging anyone’s diet in observing that this reality doesn’t advance either short- or long-term public health. (And, of course, I am judging someone’s diet! My wife attended cooking school in Paris in the 1970s. Yeah, I’m a food snob, one acquiring his paunch honestly and contentedly.)

If a City Council decides to order the closure of restaurants for indoors sales, I propose that City suspend all enforcement of its sign code addressing temporary banners. This would permit non-franchised restaurants to advertise to “folks on the street” that they remain open for takeout order business. The city could dictate the size, shape and attachment of temporary signs so long as the regulation didn’t make it prohibitively expensive for restaurants to comply. In fact, you even could devise standard “copy” or even a symbol indicating that a restaurant is open for business for takeout, like a “T” (for takeout) in a particular, uniform hue. Since a lot of restaurants don’t have a big visibility window (except free-standing buildings occupying corners – usually, franchisees of big chains) along major streets, having a uniform, readily-recognizable symbol facing the nearest street would aid restaurants operating with takeout and people searching for those dining opportunities.

You could argue, “can’t they just fix their website to indicate they’re still open?” Sure, assuming optimistically that (a) the store has a non-static webpage, (b) the cost of modifying their web pages is affordable (what about their ongoing ability to pay for hosting their Websites?), and (c) many former “seated” customers routinely review small-restaurant webpages in the hope of seeing good news on deliveries and take-out, instead of reflexively cruising over to Brand X purveyor of fine foods (oops, if I just violated AJ’s trademark, may Bashas’ forgive me!) with drive-through lanes, menu boards and two windows to collect your payment and hand you your fries.

I’d sure like to see some small restaurants’ employees keep their jobs during a tough time. This proposal, as well as any other loosening of regulating signs or any portion of a local zoning ordinance, won’t guarantee that will happen. Still, temporary liberalization may increase small businesses’ survival odds somewhat. The rest, of course, is controlled by the managements of these enterprises. And good luck to all of them.

Note: The need for banners isn’t my conception. Local restaurants who aggressively pursue survival are already putting up exterior printed banners. Predictably, they intend to call attention to their whereabouts. Predictably, some such signs are garish and larger than they need to be–unless their target customers are the genetic lineage of Mr. Magoo!