Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen announced that the city was working on legislation to waive sidewalk permit fees for restaurants as a way to allow people to dine safely outside where COVID-19 transmission is lower.
The solution makes sense—there should be more sidewalk and curbside cafe and overall more outdoor spaces for people. Especially during a pandemic where indoor dining increases the risk of spreading COVID-19. Except, for a lot of people, adding a cafe to the public right of way can be disruptive.
The city didn't proactively check with disability groups before they announced the legislation.
"It's concerning and a bit upsetting that [the city] didn’t appear to seek input from disability rights organizations," Conrad Reynoldson, an attorney with Washington Civil & Disability Advocate told me. While he doesn't see anything inherently wrong with sidewalk cafes, he hasn't gotten any tangible information about the program from the city. All he learned about it was from this Seattle Times article.
That was the same story for disability advocacy groups like Rooted in Rights and the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. Representatives only found out that restaurants would start spilling out onto sidewalks after last week's announcement, they told me.
While there was a note in the city's announcement that restaurant owners would have to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act and allow wheelchair accessibility, advocates were worried that restaurants would need more guidance on how to do this well and inclusively.
A spokesperson with the mayor's office told me that the city had communicated with both groups about the proposed legislation. However, according to Marci Carpenter, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, she was the one who reached out to the city days after the legislation was announced.
Carpenter told me that she is in full support of this idea, but that she had concerns around "pedestrian access." For people with limited eyesight, it's important to have a clear, unobstructed pathway. Many blind people who use white canes use the edges of buildings as a guide to make sure they're walking in a straight line.
Having cafes in sidewalks "will create additional burdens for blind folks that are used to navigating that way," Anna Zivarts, program director with Rooted in Rights said. "It needs to be kept in mind."
Carpenter and Zivarts were both able to talk to the city about their concerns. The legislation is still being finalized and won't be put in front of the council for a few weeks, the mayor's spokesperson said. Carpenter said she was glad the city was taking its time.
"I think they heard from us now and I'm optimistic about what they’re saying right now," Carpenter said. She was happy to hear that the cafes would have to have barriers around the seating so people using canes can identify where the sidewalk ends and the cafe begins.
Here are more of the requirements as outlined by the Seattle Department of Transportation:
Outdoor dining must be located on the sidewalk or curb space parking adjacent to the restaurant Restaurants will need to provide their own fencing and/or diverters to meet the temporary fencing requirements Outdoor cafes must be taken down and stored on private property when the restaurant is closed Temporary outdoor cafes may not be located in existing loading zones (for curb space locations)
Zivarts is only worried that the city won't work on educating restaurants and businesses on what's best for accessibility. In the past, Rooted in Rights has teamed up with SDOT to make educational videos about how things like how bike-share bikes scattered willy nilly across city sidewalks can do harm to disabled people.
She's hoping there's an opportunity for that kind of partnership around sidewalk cafes.
"I don’t think the general public understands sometimes or knows enough disabled folks how important this is," Zivarts said regarding potential tripping hazards or sidewalk disruptions. "Low vision folks can’t drive. Sidewalks are how we get around the city. To have those not be safe spaces is disheartening."