Many Seattle neighborhoods can expect to see a surge of bars and restaurants offering outdoor seating well into next spring as the Seattle City Council on Monday waived sidewalk- and curb-space permit fees through May 31, 2022.
The City Council on Monday voted unanimously to extend the Safe Start permits and allow cafes and other businesses to continue setting up canopies, picket fences, small dining tables and lawn chairs along the sidewalks and curb sides without the usual red tape or permit fees that would have accompanied these efforts in prepandemic times.
The free permits, first approved last summer, were set to expire later this year before the council extended the deadline to help the struggling restaurant industry edge toward recovery as the state starts to reopen from pandemic hibernation.
“The Café Streets program has been a lifeline for many businesses, and this extension means more of our small businesses will now have the opportunity to expand their service outdoors to serve their customers and contribute to our city’s recovery,” Council President M. Lorena González said in a prepared statement.
“Café Streets have transformed blocks all across Seattle and helped activate our public spaces to become more welcoming and inclusive. Let’s make this pandemic practice permanent and bolster vibrancy for our neighborhood businesses and downtown.”
The city currently has 202 active sidewalk permits, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. As Seattle inches closer to shorts and T-shirt weather, city officials are bracing for a flood of new applicants to take advantage of the free sidewalk-cafe permits to make up for the lost seating capacity since most of Washington remains in Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, with indoor dining capped at 50%. Inslee said last week that he hopes to reopen the state to full capacity by the end of June.
But even after the state reopens, the warmer summer weather and what will likely be a gradual shift in attitudes and individual comfort with indoor dining means that having more outdoor-dining capacity will only help restaurants as they dig themselves out of a tough year.
“One hundred percent the street cafe has been a game changer and saved businesses,” said Mike Stewart, the executive director of the Ballard Alliance, formerly the Ballard Chamber of Commerce. “It’s very difficult to run and operate a restaurant at 25% capacity (during the winter). To be able to serve more customers outside in a COVID-safe environment was just huge.”
Ballard has been one of the biggest benefactors of the increase in outdoor-dining permits, as dozens of bars and mom-and pop bistros have plopped down tables and lawn chairs in front of their doors, especially along the barhopping drag of Ballard Avenue Northwest.
Outdoor seating “saved our businesses. It made sure this past winter was not our last,” said Tommy Patrick who owns The Ballard Cut and Parish NW.
Patrick wasn’t sure how he was going to pay the bills until the city allowed him to set up two patios — each with 14 tables and long wait lists on Friday and Saturday nights. “The outdoor seating … provided a stability that we would not have had otherwise. We were able to pay our staff and stay afloat,” he said.
Even if Inslee lifts all COVID-19 restrictions by June 30 as expected, the outdoor-dining permits will still be offered for free until Memorial Day 2022 to help the restaurant industry make up for the lost revenue during the pandemic, said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who co-sponsored the legislation along with González.
Strauss, chairperson of the city’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, is banking that restaurants will use the outdoor permit to build “full-weather shelters” for al fresco dining in fall and winter. “I think we will see much more cafe culture in our city because (outdoor dining) makes our public spaces more active, adds more vibrancy to the fabric of our neighborhoods,” Strauss said.