Olympia plans to close downtown streets to expand social distancing space for dining, retail

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Governor Jay Inslee gave Thurston County the green light to move to Phase 2 of the Safe Start Washington plan. This allows businesses and recreation in the area to open again under specific safety guidelines.

With Phase 2 approved, one city has a plan in the works to help bring some relief to the economy impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City of Olympia is expanding its sidewalk vendor policy to the streets, calling it the Simplified Sidewalks plan. Certain streets will close on a rotating basis, so businesses can have more space for customers and maintain social distance requirements. This includes placing tables six feet apart, each with a five-person maximum.

“It’s sort of that café style that you may see in other cities where they’ll bring a stand-up table outside and have some service there if there’s room to accommodate that,” said Mike Reid, the city’s economic development director.

Reid said their strategic plan would have minimal impact on transportation and traffic. The city’s permit department will be on-site to make sure everything follows code and ADA accessibility requirements. Reid also mentioned there will be several parking stalls dedicated to takeout and pick-up orders for restaurants and customers who don’t participate in the idea.

“We’ve got a portion of our population that is, I think, really looking forward to seeing the restaurants that they love and the businesses they love. And if you can give them an opportunity to use those in a different way or maybe if its outdoor, it may be a little more comfortable to them,” said Reid.

Three Magnets Brewing Company is getting ready to participate in the city’s plan. Owner Nathan Rilley has already ordered six of 13 picnic tables that will be set up in an alley at least 10 feet apart.

“It’s a place that I might actually feel comfortable dining at myself and I’m someone who has been staying away from everything throughout this,” said Rilley.

He said is not opening the restaurant during Phase 2 and believes the outdoor dining space is a safer alternative.

“I think there’s a lot of people that don’t feel comfortable going inside a restaurant yet, but they might sit at a picnic table and drink a beer,” said Rilley. “It will be a slightly different revenue stream, so that will be good for us.”

LuWana Hawely, owner of Hawley’s Gelato, said she is going to open her shop during Phase 2 after being closed with minimal revenue for the past two months. She said they were going to take out all their tables and chairs in order to meet the social distancing requirements. Now she has adjusted those plans to take advantage of the city’s Simplified Sidewalk idea.

“We definitely would move out so that the sidewalk would be open for people to walk back and forth and there would be space here. Seating would be out in the street area then it would allow us to space it six feet apart,” said Hawley.

Most of the storefronts in downtown Olympia don’t offer outdoor space. Reid said the city’s plan helps those businesses expand their capacity while adapting to the state’s Phase 2 safety requirements.

“What we’re trying to do is just continue to give them that platform to innovate and adapt to the best that they can,” said Reid. “They’ve seen their businesses adapt and evolve. And I think they want to their municipality and their government do the same.”

Reid said the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board approved outdoor sales for businesses that have proper licensing. Businesses are still required to ask for I.D. and customers will have to consume within designated areas. The city is enhancing outdoor vending opportunities for retailers who will offer interior sales and curbside pick-up. Those opportunities include streamlined sidewalk vending requirements, outdoor sidewalk striping for safety protocols and dedicated curbside pickup parking stalls.

Reid said the city hopes to begin the Simplified Sidewalk plan by the start of June. He said the city will waive permit fees. He also explained the city will adjust the plan as time progresses to ensure safety and efficiency.

“I think that we have enough guidance and interest to give it a try, so we’re going to,” said Reid.