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Outdoor cafe at C'est La Vie restaurant in dowtown Sarasota
Sarasota Thursday, May 14, 2020 3 weeks ago

City considers street closures for outdoor dining, pedestrian space

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The city could temporarily close streets to cars as a COVID-19 response measure, but it's unclear if and when changes may actually take place.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As the city considers closing some streets to expand space for pedestrians and outdoor dining, there’s no shortage of opinions on the concept among officials, businesses and residents.

There are vocal supporters of the idea, including some restaurateurs eager to generate more business while operating within state-mandated capacity limits. It also includes City Commissioner Hagen Brody, who on Tuesday pushed the city to move quickly to implement street closures as part of its COVID-19 response, at least on a trial basis.

When City Manager Tom Barwin indicated closures were unlikely to go into effect this weekend, Brody was upset, castigating fellow policymakers for not being more decisive.

“We have to allow our local businesses to use the public space to make customers feel safe and be safe,” Brody said.

There are also those with reservations. Other downtown merchants have expressed concern about losing parking spaces in front of their business. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said she would not support increasing outdoor dining capacity without the ability to implement additional protective measures, such as requiring face masks.

With the state still in the first phase of reopening after a shutdown order, Freeland Eddie urged caution about the prospect of promoting increased activity.

“If you’re not enforcing some form of additional restriction, I think you’re just inviting more people to come together without social distancing,” she said.

Barwin said the city is trying to navigate those differing perspectives. Although he’s optimistic a plan for a trial street closure could be in place soon, he said staff wants to identify a part of the city where business owners are fully supportive of the concept. So far, an ideal location has not emerged.

“We don’t have a consensus on a block yet,” Barwin said. “That’s our No. 1 challenge. We’ve heard what helps one person might hurt another person.”

Balancing act

Although the city hasn’t finalized any plans, staff has prepared a series of options for potentially closing streets to increase sidewalk space and outdoor dining.

Earlier this month, Barwin sent a draft presentation to commissioners outlining “some of the possibilities which have been conceived for temporary street closure experiments.”

Option one: Total vehicular closure
Concept images via city of Sarasota

This plan would leave sidewalks for pedestrian use while repurposing vehicular travel lanes for expanded outdoor dining. The city presentation suggests side streets could be used for short-term parking to accommodate carryout service. One potential challenge: Servers would have to cross the pedestrian areas on the sidewalks to reach restaurant tables.

Option two: Total vehicular closure, center pedestrian walkway

A sort of inverse of option one, this configuration would also close the street to vehicular traffic, but the travel lanes would be used for pedestrians rather than restaurant seating. In this option, on-street parking spaces could still be used to expand outdoor dining. The city notes walkways would have to be created to allow pedestrians to move between the center of the street and businesses.

Option three: One-way street

The third proposal would close only one vehicular travel lane. Although most on-street parking spaces would be closed to allow for expanded outdoor dining, the city suggested this option could include some limited parallel parking to allow for parking or pickup service.

Option four: Maintain two-way traffic

The final option would limit the expanded outdoor seating to available right of way and parking space and preserve vehicular travel in both directions.

The presentation, dated May 6, recommends using a mixture of configurations on downtown streets. Although closing some vehicular traffic lanes might be appropriate for Main Street, the presentation suggests restaurants on Lemon Avenue and State Street could get by using available sidewalk and parking space.

As the city continues to develop guidelines for implementing street closures, Commissioner Liz Alpert said she wants the city’s focus to extend beyond just the downtown core.

“My concern is that there are other restaurants in our community besides those on [West] Main Street,” Alpert said. “I think we need to think about all of them.”

Some Main Street businesses have reached out to the city to endorse a potential road closure while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place. Jeremy Osment, managing partner of Selva Grill, emailed Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch a statement supporting the concept May 6. Osment noted Lakewood Ranch Main Street decided to close to vehicular traffic effective May 8. He said a similar step in the city could be a boon for struggling businesses.

“Restaurants cannot survive at 25% occupancy or even 50%,” Osment wrote. “And after being closed for a month, we need economic relief now.”

Support for a closure extends beyond business proprietors. Resident Charles Burks sent an email to commissioners May 4 encouraging them to implement a closure because he found it impossible to pass some existing sidewalk cafes while maintaining 6 feet of separation from tables.

“I ended up walking in the street to stay at a safe distance from diners,” Burks wrote.

Advocates for closing streets say it would serve as a safety measure, allowing more space for pedestrians to pass while keeping distance from outside diners.

Other public input has been warier of the prospect of closing streets, particularly to accommodate more tables for diners. Residents Linda Haller Sloan and Toni Chagnon sent an email with the subject line “Pandemic Promenade?” which Ahearn-Koch later flagged for Barwin’s attention.

In the email, Haller Sloan and Chagnon share concern that expanding outdoor capacity would introduce more opportunities for spreading the disease, particularly if the city cannot ensure each restaurant will adequately enforce safety measures. The email questioned whether quickly moving to promote outdoor dining was in keeping with the state’s step-by-step approach to reopening.

“The fundamental risk factors for transmission of COVID-19 is human-to-human transmission,” the email stated. “It only takes two people. Or one contaminated surface. This is so whether indoors or outdoors.”

Lido Key resident Karen Wehner suggested in an email to commissioners that the city only permit outdoor street dining if employees and patrons are required to wear masks. At Tuesday’s meeting, Barwin said he thought it would be difficult to enforce such a provision.

Already, the city is taking some steps to expand outdoor dining. Businesses can now apply for temporary outdoor cafe permits that allow for increased use of public space, such as on-street parking spots.

Permit requirements include a minimum of 6 feet between diners at different tables and 7.5 feet of clear passage for pedestrians adjacent to the cafe seating.

As the city further reviews its options for closing streets, it will have to balance input from those worried about potential negative effects and those eager for the city to take swift action in response to economic challenges.

“You can pick this thing to death, but until you do it, try it, see how it goes, there’s just nothing happening,” Brody said.

 

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