The past few months have been very trying times as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the country. By mid-March, Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered non-essential businesses and facilities to close across the state in order to stem the loss of life and reduce stress on healthcare systems. The economic impacts of this have been acute to workers and businesses, particularly in the service industry where face-to-face interactions are necessary to groom people, sell goods, and provide dining experiences. Some businesses have gotten by through online and telephone orders with curbside pick-up, but on balance it has been deeply painful, often by furloughing substantial sums of staff.

However, Governor Inslee announced late last week that the state’s largest county–King County–could move to a Modified Phase 1 under the statewide Safe Start Washington recovery plan. By Friday afternoon, shops and restaurants began opening for indoor shopping and dining, though with some restrictions. It was a breath of fresh air for people wanting to get some semblance of pre-Covid life back and a sigh of relief to many business owners and service workers alike.

Al fresco recovery could add another layer of protection

The Modified Phase 1 restrictions still limit occupancy for most services in an effort to reduce the likelihood of Covid transmission since new cases continue to be reported daily–Seattle was an early hotspot in North America setting off continent-wide alarm bells of pervasive community transmission. The Washington State Department of Health approved the county’s variance application to allow some aspects of Phase 2 activities to happen sooner since the county is still falling shy of the metrics to safely move fully into Phase 2 but performing well enough that additional activities could be allowed. There are many reasonable practices that the variance includes:

  • Non-essential retail businesses can allow up to 15% of indoor occupancy maximums, provided that customers do not remain inside longer than 30 minutes and other Phase 2 guidance is met;
  • Restaurants and bars can allow up to 25% tables to be used indoors, provided that other tables and chairs in use are at least six feet apart and other Phase 2 guidance is met;
  • Restaurants and bars can allow up to 50% of outdoor capacity to be used, provided all tables and chairs in use are at least six feet apart and other Phase 2 guidance is met; and
  • Personal services can allow up to 25% of customers that could normally be served and other Phase 2 guidance is met.

King County also has an order in place directing all people to wear face masks in public when social distancing of at least six feet is not feasible, adding an extra layer of protection from Covid. The state, for its part, does not have a blanket order in place, but it is encouraged and required for certain workers.

The Modified Phase 1 variance, however, only empowers the local health authority to impose standards on businesses. It does not empower Public Health — Seattle & King County to direct what local governments do to further advance the cause of the variance for economic vitality and public health. Cities and counties are left with what to do in that regard, and so far, most local governments have not been as quick-moving developing plans that would make it easier for businesses to use sensible practices that involve outdoor activities.

The Covid data thus far has been clear that most people who contracted the virus did so while being in enclosed and poorly ventilated spaces. Establishing maximum indoor occupancies to allow for more social distancing is helpful in mitigating that. Wearing face masks are also good in further reducing possible transmission, as much as 60% for handmade cloth faces masks. But the reality is, outdoor spaces are superior in reducing transmission, adding another layer of protection in a multifaceted strategy to stop Covid spread.

Local governments beginning to act

Some cities are trying to be proactive. On Tuesday, Redmond announced what could be the beginnings of a special program to allow more outdoor dining and retail on public right-of-way, making it the first program of its kind in Puget Sound. The city is contemplating the use of sidewalks, off-street parking areas, on-street parking, and in-street areas, too, for the program.

Taking stock of on-street parking, the city found that there is about 230 spaces spread across the Downtown and Old Town districts. Peak times right now are only seeing 50% utilization, down from 85% utilization in the pre-pandemic period. Off-street parking, by the way, was only at 45% utilization in the pre-pandemic period–not much of a parking issue when taken together with on-street parking. Redmond staff thinks that some on-street parking could benefit from conversion to outdoor dining or other business uses, but that would be a tertiary priority under a proposed decision framework.

Staff has suggested that the city prioritize which types of spaces could qualify for program based upon prioritization. The more disruptive the space to the community, the lower it falls on the decision framework. So, if a business could reasonably find sidewalk space for outdoor dining or sale of goods, the framework would encourage doing this first to reach an effective 50% occupancy capacity. Lower on the list is extra off-street parking, on-street parking, and minor streets. Other businesses could also request waiting space on the curb without a permit where indoor occupancies, such as for ophthalmologists, are heavily restricted. Still, the permit fee for outdoor seating would be about $1,000 (reduced from around $6,700) and the framework seems to leave out are other businesses that are not formally established as brick and mortar.

Separately, Redmond has looked at the issue of using park space, such as the downtown park since many businesses are interested in temporarily moving activities. Yoga and exercise studios, for instance, are naturally interested in this. Redmond staff, however, are concerned that use of Downtown Park could create a serious challenge for equitable access by businesses and take away from the primary recreational function that they are supposed to serve, which is especially important during a pandemic where space is ever more critical. With that in mind, city staff did express interest in providing more tables and seating in the park and several other parks in the city may be candidates for temporarily leasing park space to small businesses.

Last week, Bothell took action to close one block of Main Street (between 101st Ave NE and 102nd Ave NE) where many restaurants are located. Outdoor seating and tables will be sprawled across the street as soon as June 15th, something many business owners are already welcoming. And then just last night, the city council took another step in allowing surface parking lots adjacent to restaurants to be temporarily converted to additional outdoor dining space. Applicants will be able to use the city’s streamlined subject-to-field-inspection permit process at no cost to authorize the change.

Bellevue has also created an online business recovery resource center, providing information on how business owners can obtain street use permits for sidewalk cafés and 90-day temporary use permits to convert off-street parking for outdoor dining areas. These resources are helpful to businesses, but they still do not respond to the immediate economic and public health need, and not all businesses are blessed with convertible surface parking lots and wide sidewalks. The applications still take a week to two weeks to process–not all local are as flexible and quick to process these types of permit–and, in the case of the temporary use permit, applicants still need to show that minimum parking requirements will be met or that parking demand is reduced. On top this, Bellevue is still charging permit fees: $325 for temporary use permits and $425 for street use permits plus $2 per square foot of right-of-way to be leased.

Leading best practices

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently published a pandemic recovery guide for cities that specifically addresses how to repurpose streets to serve economic vitality and aid in public health. Best practices highlight several street strategies, such as sidewalk extensions for outdoor queuing and goods pickup, in-street markets, and outdoor dining food courts. The guidance touches on planning and design, engagement, and monitoring practices as well as the contexts that different strategies work in.

High level guidance for cities to consider in launching in-street markets. (NACTO)
High level guidance for cities to consider in launching in-street markets. (NACTO)

For in-street markets and outdoor dining food courts, NATCO recommends engaging with businesses to design spaces that can work, establishing appropriate public health and operational protocols, and making the implementation process easy. That means waiving permit fees and developing a straightforward system to be able to launch markets and outdoor dining food courts in a week. Offering these spaces to local businesses is indeed critical, but equitable access to other businesses, including street vendors, should be a priority, as well as maintaining accessibility for people with mobility challenges.

Portland has taken this to heart with their own program that allows individual businesses and business districts to apply for full or partial street closures. The Healthy Businesses Permit is flexible, offering businesses the opportunity to use right-of-way for various economic purposes. At its extreme, business can close whole street blocks to create plaza space for outdoor dining, retail space, and other vendors. The application requirements are actually quite straightforward, making the process accessible to people. Permits are free and good until October with minimal processing timelines, though Portland has warned seven-day processing times are possible due to the volume of requests. As the food cart and bike capital of the Pacific Northwest, the swift and simple adoption of this program seems in line with the city’s nimble right-of-way policies.

Various street closure options available under Portland's Healthy Businesses Permit. (City of Portland)
Various street closure options available under Portland’s Healthy Businesses Permit. (City of Portland)

In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont took the extraordinary measure of suspending laws restricting outdoor activities for food and beverage service, display of goods for sale, and Covid-19 safety signage across the state in May. The order directs cities and counties to expeditiously modify or suspend land use and public right-of-way laws that limit outdoor activities, including on parking lots, sidewalks, and even in streets. In fact, local jurisdictions are prohibited from enforcing minimum off-street parking requirements in conjunction with outdoor activities. Cities and counties are also directed to speed up permitting processes and suspend permitting fees to accommodate these activities, which is a testament to how serious the governor has take pandemic response.

Governor Inslee has not yet indicated his intention to follow suit in this regard, but there is no reason why local governments cannot take up similar programs as part of a comprehensive economic recovery and public health strategy. Public Health — Seattle & King County could be instrumental in issuing guidance encouraging local participation that blends best practices from NACTO, Portland, and Connecticut.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.