As COVID-19 slowly releases its grip, let us seize the opportunity to permanently adopt policy changes that temporarily allowed for curbside dining.
In the past year, Seattle has learned what other coastal cities have known for decades - outdoor and streetside dining is a win for customers, communities (jobs), and businesses.
A stroll down Ballard Ave, Western Avenue, Occidental, Pike Place, the waterfront, Broadway et al today evokes images of citywide boulevards with happy diners enjoying excellent food under the stars or even a Seattle overcast. The scene is a pleasant one, even while wearing a mask. Similar experiences can be had in numerous cities around the world that until recently limited outdoor dining options.
Restaurants were challenged mightily during the pandemic. Last December, the Washington Hospitality Association reported that some 2,000 restaurants had closed across the state during COVID. More than 600 of those were Seattle venues.
The increased seating capacity created by permanent streetside dining would give restaurant owners a chance to recapture revenue lost during COVID and replace jobs lost to the pandemic. More seats would mean more opportunities for cooks, bartenders, service staff, and more sales for the companies that supply restaurants. Government would see increased sales tax and B&O revenue to fund the rebound from the pandemic and beyond.
A few critics contend that these outdoor dining programs take up valuable sidewalks and parking spaces, and thus make the neighborhoods less accessible. This narrow view fails to acknowledge the transformation in urban travel that began long before the pandemic. The use of ride-sharing service Uber in larger cities was at an all-time high in the fourth quarter of 2019. While such services, including Uber, saw a dramatic drop in usage during the pandemic, there is every reason to expect that, as the COVID threat fades and restrictions are loosened, people will again choose to leave their car at home when they head out for a night on the town.
Yes, on-street dining does have the potential to impact nearby retailers by making it more difficult for customers to reach those stores. That legitimate concern must be addressed in the process of crafting an even-handed policy that supports outdoor dining without adversely affecting a neighborhood’s other businesses and residents.
At this highly divisive moment in our politics, this is a rare chance to come together around a program that benefits everyone. Let's make curbside dining a permanent part of the Seattle experience. The Seattle City Council has a history of being reactive, but this opportunity provides an opportunity to lead by being proactive. Do I hear a second to this motion?
Howard Wright is founder of Seattle Hospitality Group, with tourism and hospitality operations throughout the Pacific Northwest.