If you’re skittish about dining-in at restaurants during the pandemic, would you be more open if your table were plopped out front, along the sidewalk — since the coronavirus is supposedly less likely to transmit from person to person outdoors?
The city of Seattle is hoping that might be enough to get you to eat out again.
On Friday, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will waive sidewalk permit fees and cut red tape to make it easier for restaurateurs to offer outdoor seating during the pandemic. The free, temporary sidewalk-and-curb-space permit would be good for up to six months and would also apply to food trucks and carts, as well as retail shops that could display merchandise out front. The City Council is expected to pass the proposed legislation, sponsored by council members Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen.
“This idea came straight from the small business community that they felt would aid in their recovery,” Strauss said in a news release. “Sidewalk cafes are a creative public health strategy, a necessary step to help our businesses survive the economic impacts of COVID-19, and an example of how we can better utilize our existing pedestrian spaces.”
Last Friday, King County moved into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan, which allows restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, with the stipulation that each party must consist of five people or fewer, and tables must be six feet apart. But Seattle restaurateurs weren’t exactly rushing to reopen their dining rooms. The economics didn’t pan out due to the limited seating and the high cost of staffing, about a dozen chefs told The Seattle Times. Many have lobbied City Hall to use the sidewalks to make up for lost seating capacity.
“The first and second phase of opening feel like fool’s gold because the metric doesn’t really work out,” said chef Jason Stoneburner, who owns three Seattle-area restaurants. “It’s impossible to cover rent and payroll and cost of goods and your basic operational day-to-day expenses. The city doing this is a wonderful move.”
While the legislation still needs to be passed, business owners can apply for the temporary permit starting Friday. Stoneburner will apply to add up to 26 seats in front of his namesake restaurant in Ballard, and up to 16 seats along the sidewalk of his new pizzeria, Sunny Hill. He also co-owns Seaplane Kitchen & Bar in Kenmore, where he has added 50 seats in a public area with the blessing of city officials.
Seattle is the latest in a long line of municipalities that have answered the restaurant industry’s pleas. In recent weeks, Tacoma, Olympia and Kenmore have eased permit restrictions to allow restaurants and cafes to put dining tables along sidewalks, alleys, parking lots and even streets until the pandemic is over.
In Ballard, restaurant owner Charlie Anthe has kept his Japanese restaurant Moshi Moshi on the sideline during Phase 2, relying only on takeout and delivery. He said he won’t reopen his dining room anytime soon because of the higher risk that the virus can transmit indoors. But if his sidewalk cafe permit gets approved, he will add up to 30 seats for al fresco dining. “Our customers and staff feel more comfortable … outdoors,” he said.
In 2008, then-Mayor Greg Nickels made a push to get more sidewalk cafes going around neighborhoods in Seattle, but many small businesses complained the permits cost thousands of dollars and took months to get approved.
Durkan’s staff vowed to lift those hurdles, and say restaurants will not be required to build railings or other “permanent fixtures” to get a sidewalk cafe permit.
Also, the mayor’s office said the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) “is expediting and prioritizing these types of permit applications by requiring public notice, rather than the standard two-week public comment period.”
Even with the temporary permits, owners of sidewalk cafes need to leave enough room for wheelchairs, to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a statement, Durkan said, “The COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic devastation has caused so many of our small businesses to face the potential of closing their doors forever. For many of our small businesses, the ability to operate outside — even at a limited capacity — provides a much-needed lifeline during these challenging times. At the city, we’re committed to helping our small businesses safely and feasibly reopen, which is why we’re making our sidewalk and street permits free, and expediting turnaround times so small businesses can serve customers sooner, rather than later.”
Restaurants that want to serve alcohol outside must get an additional permit from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. The board indicated this month that it would expedite such requests during the pandemic if a business met the criteria.