That’s a vision city leaders in the Baltimore area and elsewhere in the country are embracing as cities and states reopen. Proponents hope closing streets to facilitate outdoor dining will help struggling businesses hurt by coronavirus closures, and maybe even prompt a bit of a renaissance in car-free neighborhoods.
But there are plenty of obstacles.
“We’ll see how Day One goes because you never know how these things turn out,” said Charles Village Pub and Patio manager Nick Zahirsky. Starting this weekend, his restaurant and others in Towson will offer outdoor dining on Pennsylvania Avenue between York Road and Washington Avenue.
In recent months, the idea of creating outdoor dining areas in public spaces has been embraced in places as far flung as Vilnius, Lithuania, and Berkeley, California. Now, it’s gaining steam in Maryland. This week, Montgomery County announced the opening of the “Bethesda Streetery," which will close streets to create an open-air dining area where customers can eat food purchased from nearby restaurants.
Officials with Baltimore’s transportation department are in the process of reviewing more than two dozen applications for partial road closures. The requests will also be reviewed by various other departments, including police, fire and health, and then be sent to the city’s liquor board for comment.
Typically, it takes months to approve such special-event permits; the city is hoping to distill the process into around a week, says Thomas Akras, deputy executive secretary of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners.
City Councilman Eric Costello couldn’t say exactly when the closures will begin in Baltimore, but “the goal is to do it as soon as humanly possible.”
One victory came Thursday. In an executive order, Hogan authorized Baltimore’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners to waive the $200 daily fee for temporary permit license extensions — which allow restaurants to serve alcohol beyond their normal footprint. Such fees, Mayor Bernard C. Jack Young wrote in a June 1 letter to Hogan, were “incompatible” with necessary health accommodations. The board voted unanimously to suspend the fee throughout the state of emergency put in place due to the pandemic.
Still, other questions remain. For example: Who’s in charge of physically closing the streets?
That’s a question Eliza Steele of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar has been wondering. This week, Steele filled out an application to close off part of Chestnut Avenue surrounding the Hampden corner eatery where she works. The form asked what type of barricade the restaurant would implement. Steele didn’t even know they would need one.
“We had assumed that the city would handle closing the street, but I think it seems like that’s maybe not the case,” said Steele.
Akras said whether a restaurant needs to get a barrier depends on how many seats they are hoping to place outside.
Then there’s the issue of parking. Residents of some Baltimore neighborhoods have expressed concerns about parking and traffic. Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of Fells Point Main Street, said she’s been working with people who live in the area to come up with a plan that works for both businesses and homeowners.
While Costello admits the street closures could pose an inconvenience for some residents, he believes it’s a necessary step to ensure the survival of the hospitality industry. “We are not going to let our restaurant industry in the city fail,” he said.
Details aside, a few people hope it will inspire a cultural shift in how we think of public space.
“It’s beyond just outdoor dining,” said Fells Point architect Bryce Turner, who has been working with community members on proposals to close roads in the East Baltimore neighborhood. To Turner, the pandemic provides an opportunity to create more walkable and welcoming communities. “Places are so much more beautiful” without cars parked everywhere, he said.
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His designs for the neighborhood include planters and umbrellas placed on Thames Street’s paving stones. White barriers made from repurposed wooden pallets would separate the dining area from the street.
Neighborhoods like Fells Point have experimented with street closures during non-pandemic times. Last summer, for example, restaurants offered al fresco dining in a city block as part of a monthly program.
“I think that program can really be expanded,” Turner said.
Turner said it reflects a larger global move toward outdoor dining; he points to examples like the Wharf in Washington, where diners can sometimes sit outside with heat lamps in weather as cool as 50 degrees. “It works in Europe, it works in other places, why can’t it work here?”
Still, it’s hard for Steele to see outdoor dining as a catch-all solution. Restaurants like hers have a difficult road ahead of them, struggling to reopen safely as a pandemic rages on. If tons of people show up, that could pose another threat, she thinks. “Anything I can conceive of has 10 problems associated with it."