It's been two months since Seattle City Council member Dan Strauss called for Ballard Ave NW to be closed on weekends and turned into a "cafe street," with tables and chairs out in the middle of the road. From a public health standpoint and an economic standpoint, it makes sense.
The governor's office signaled back then that they were cool with closing roads and turning them into cafe streets, but they said it's up to cities. So what did the mayor's office say? "We are not making any announcements at this time."
Two long, terrifying months later in the restaurant industry, the mayor yesterday announced a plan to start allowing restaurants to apply for permits to close "one or more blocks" of streets outside their businesses for possible outdoor dining. Just to be clear, this is a plan to allow businesses to apply for permits, not a plan to allow street closures themselves. The first day these free permits will be accepted is not until next week. When those permits might be approved is anyone's guess.
"We're appreciative," says Jeanie Chunn of industry group Seattle Restaurants United. "But the reality is you can't even apply until next week, and if the permit takes two weeks to get"—which is optimistic, given how many departments are involved in approving permits—"now we're at August 12th. And when does summer end in Seattle?"
Chunn adds, "I wonder if it's so late now that restauranteurs are like: 'I'm not willing to spend the money it will take to build the barriers, hire staff back, and do everything it will require, and then re-lay them off" when the weather inevitably changes.
"Dan Strauss called for this two months ago," Chunn points out. "I honestly don't know why it took so long when other cities were able to move to this model so quickly. I'm not sure why it got held up, because to me it felt like everyone was moving on it except the mayor's office."
Back in May when Strauss made his announcement, Spokane had already taken action to let restaurants occupy streets. In other cities, for instance Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, officials made moves even sooner: In April, the mayor of Vilnius said, "Plazas, squares, streets—nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine."
A restaurant industry person in Vilnius said back in April, "It came just in time."
On July 2, New York City's mayor began allowing street closures so that restaurants could turn them into outdoor seating. The photo at the top of this post was taken in Manhattan on July 4.
In other words, Seattle is still lagging behind just about everywhere else—from Vilnius to New York to Spokane.
Karuna Long, who owns Oliver's Twist in Phinney Ridge, says in reaction to yesterday's news: "It seems like the mayor is making an effort to hear our qualms. It's been a long arduous process since this started."
So he's fine with how long this has taken?
"I don't think it's fine at all," Long says. "I think this should have been presented well before our only outdoor summer season comes around. It's literally towards the tail end now. What are we going to do, have everyone dine outdoors when the fall and rainy season comes around? This isn't going to work."
Oliver's Twist also has the problem of being right on Greenwood Avenue N, not on a side street. Long doesn't anticipate the city approving the closure of arterials like Greenwood Avenue.
"I'm working to see if we can have some of the side streets closed, like maybe 70th, right around the corner," he says. "It's a little bit further of a trek to get down the driveway, but as long as the city is willing to get us more flexibility, that would be paramount. But for the most part, any kind of outreach to the city and getting them to understand the plight of restaurants and bars, I think it's fallen on deaf ears since this all started."
Wassef Haroun, owner of Mamnoon on Capitol Hill, says, "I'm really not optimistic this is going to happen. There are some aspects of this that haven't been thought through. That's the part that's frustrating. Instead of capturing the moment when we should have done it, we're doing it too little, too late."
Haroun points out that even if a restaurant applies to close a street, the possibility of that closure will impact so many other people and be tied up in so many complications and city departments.
He believes unless the city appoints a steward to take ownership of this project from the mayor's office, to help make this easy on businesses, and to engage a mediator to resolve disputes between residents, businesses, emergency services, street-cleaning services, and other stakeholders, it's not realistic.
"It needs someone in the city who's working on this on each street," Haroun says.
"What we want is for the city to complete the job. Give us guidance for working through the issues. Make it easier for us. We're not traffic experts, we don't know how many cars per day come down the street"—the kind of question business owners are asked on permits. "They need to come a lot closer to us. If you look at the press release and the contents of it, they are there and we are here. Somehow they need to get a lot closer to us on this."
Haroun also says, "It’s good that it’s finally here but judging from our experience so far trying to approve seating on two parking spots by Mamnoon, each application will go through untold delays and snafus until summer is really gone."
Haroun adds, "I don’t mean to sound too negative. But at the same time it’s not right for the city administration to declare victory or that they have helped us materially yet."
Chunn, co-founder of the industry group Seattle Restaurants United, agrees with Long and Haroun.
"Ultimately, I think it's a great thing," Chunn says. "I think it's great that we're doing it. But at the end of the day, it's not going to save restaurants at this point. We have to pull on every single lever, and this lever came a little late to be truly impactful. It's a little frustrating that it took so long to put through. I'm tired of waiting for these decisions to be made. Let's make the decision and move forward with process."
The Stranger reached out to the mayor's office for a reaction to the business owners' frustrations. According to spokesperson Chelsea Kellogg: "We have consistently been reaching out to restaurants to meet their needs and hear their feedback during this incredibly difficult time."
The mayor's office points to free sidewalk and parking space permitting they rolled out last month, and the creation of curbside pick-up and drop-off zones for retailers, as examples of them helping businesses.
"Creating new policy to shut down streets has immense complications," Kellogg goes on. "Feedback we have heard is that not all restaurants are of the same mind when it comes to closing streets. Some are successfully making the pick-up and delivery model work well and don’t wish for the streets to close. That is part of the intention with our announcement yesterday—rather than the City deciding which streets should be closed we’d like communities of restaurants and retail businesses to apply if they are proactively interested in this model."
Yeah, that certainly sounds like... this is going to take awhile.
Meanwhile, the governor just announced new restrictions on indoor dining.