Downtown restaurateurs and the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership have been in talks with the city of Winston-Salem about the possibility of street dining — allowing restaurants to set up tables on closed streets.
The move has been prompted by the reduced capacity and lost revenue caused by the statewide COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
The city has agreed to a trial run of street dining from 5 to 10 p.m. July 25, closing one block of Fourth Street between Marshall and Trade streets.
Jason Thiel, the executive director of the DWSP, helped organize the trial. “As the pandemic went on, we knew that outdoor dining options would be desirable,” Thiel said. “A lot of other cities across the country have been closing streets, so we started looking at this back in May.”
Separately, Cary Clifford, the owner of Camino Bakery, set up an online petition at Change.org to gather support for street dining in the blocks of Fourth Street between Spruce and Liberty, and Trade between Seventh and Eighth streets.
Restaurateurs are not asking for permanent or long-term street closure but rather only at peak times for dining during the pandemic. The petition at Change.org, which had 3,900 signatures as of last week, calls for closing those select blocks every weekend.
“Restaurants are such an important part of the city culture — and the tax base,” Clifford said. “Every restaurateur I know is 100 percent desperate. The city needs to step up and do everything in its power to help.”
Many restaurants rely on being nearly full, especially on weekend nights and other peak times, to make a profit. With the statewide order to limit restaurant capacity to 50%, many restaurateurs fear they will not be able to stay in business, especially if the pandemic lasts much longer.
The quest for increased outdoor dining is based on two things: first, as a way to restore some of the seating capacity lost to the 50% rule; and second, as a way to make customers feel safer about dining out. Medical experts have said that the outdoors pose a lower risk of catching the coronavirus than indoors, and many consumers have said they feel more comfortable dining outside.
The DWSP already has pushed the city to take some steps to help downtown restaurants. One of the first measures, in late March, was to allow reserved parking spots in front of restaurants to be used for takeout and curbside pickup.
Another move, Thiel said, was to expand sidewalk dining for restaurants in the central business district. Since late May, restaurants have been allowed to expand sidewalk dining areas to use space in front of other buildings adjacent to the restaurant, and to use privately owned parking lots for additional seating or retail vending — as long as they have permission from any affected property owner or tenant.
Thiel said he is proposing another option — similar to the reserving of parking spaces for curbside pickup — to use parking spaces in front of restaurants for setting up dining tables, what Thiel calls “parklets.”
Thiel said that option might work in blocks where it’s either not practical to close the whole street or where some businesses prefer to keep the street open.
Clifford said that in putting together a proposal for street closings, she sent emails to just about every restaurant on Trade and Fourth streets. Only two, she said, did not want the street closed. Clifford also said she reached out to organizations that have been staging protests downtown to help ensure that any street closings to benefit restaurants would not interfere with any planned protests.
Clifford also met last Thursday with Mayor Allen Joines and City Council Member Jeff MacIntosh.
“The city staff and everyone has been talking about this for a while, and we’re in favor of it,” MacIntosh said. “Now we’re finally at the point where we can do a pilot or trial run.”
MacIntosh said that after the trial run, the city would get feedback from restaurant owners. If the feedback is positive, he expects the city will move forward with a plan for future street dining, assuming crowds are well-behaved and they practice social distancing. “We want it to be successful enough to earn restaurants some money. But if it turns into a street festival, then that’s a problem,” MacIntosh said.
Still to be worked out is who would bear the costs. MacIntosh said that the city’s resources are tight as a result of the pandemic, but that the city may be willing to pay a limited amount for police overtime and other costs associated with closing streets. Thiel also said that the Partnership is willing to help pitch in.
How much street closings actually can benefit a restaurant’s bottom line is an open question, but restaurateurs and city officials think it’s important to try everything they can — and it may turn out that several different approaches used in combination will be the best solution.
“Every restaurant isn’t created equally,” Thiel said. “But this is a menu of different things we can try. We’ll have to see how it goes.”