The city of Klamath Falls is offering a way for downtown restaurants to cope with the latest COVID-related restrictions on indoor dining by taking things to the streets — or, more specifically, parking spots.
On Tuesday, Governor Kate Brown said counties, such as Klamath, who were were in the "extreme" risk level were bumped down a risk level because the statewide seven-day average increase for hospitalized COVID-19 positive patients dropped below 15 percent. This means indoor dining and other activities will be allowed starting Friday.
But Klamath Falls still sees the opportunity to expand outdoor options.
Pedlets, which are parking spaces blocked off for pedestrian access sometimes called parklets, have recently increased in popularity in cities like Bend and Boise. They allow businesses to extend their infrastructure outdoors onto the sidewalk, rerouting pedestrians through the road space. The pandemic’s reductions and closures of indoor dining have accelerated the trend in many urban areas.
Transmission of COVID-19 has shown to be significantly lower outdoors than indoors, and even the county’s most recent move to the "extreme risk" categorization (which requires indoor dining to close) saw a doubling of the capacity limit for outdoor dining — just in time for a glorious stretch of spring weather.
Scott Souders, director of development services for the city of Klamath Falls, said his department and the Klamath Falls Downtown Association reached out to a few businesses last year to gauge interest in implementing a formal pedlet program locally. They spent the rest of the year developing it. Souders said city officials decided to devise a temporary emergency program for the coming weeks when it looked like an indoor dining ban would remain in place for some time.
“In the last couple of days, we have been scrambling to try to come up with ways in which we could just let businesses utilize the downtown sidewalk spaces,” he said.
Souders brought the matter to city council Monday night, and they were unanimously in favor of the initiative. Now, restaurants downtown may contact either his office or the Downtown Association to request approval to take over sidewalks in front of their building for outdoor dining. They must still comply with state guidelines requiring tables to be spaced adequately apart and leave at least five feet of space on the sidewalk as pedestrian space.
Businesses who wish to take up the whole sidewalk can work with the city to develop ADA-accessible ramps that divert pedestrians onto an adjacent parking spot to bypass the outdoor dining area. Other than potentially purchasing materials to build that infrastructure if they choose to utilize a pedlet, Souders said the initiative shouldn’t come with any additional costs from the city. Restaurants will be responsible for the setup and takedown of their own furniture each day.
“I don’t think it would be expensive if they stay on the sidewalk and maintain the five-foot path. The intent for that is to make it easier for them,” Souders said.
Souders is drafting an approval letter to provide to interested restaurants, which will give them permission to expand to the sidewalks
Sounders said guidance from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission allows establishments that cater to minors and primarily serve food to temporarily expand their liquor licenses to the sidewalk areas, so customers don’t have to worry about sitting at a sidewalk table and having an alcoholic drink with their meals.
There are already a few restaurants that have expressed interest in the temporary pedlet program, and Sounders said the City plans to institute a formal program later this spring that’s open to businesses beyond restaurants, though that will require a separate, more involved application process. This go-around, he said businesses could contact him during the day to acquire the approval letter and be able to seat customers outdoors by dinnertime.
“I'm going to tell a business right now, ‘Do what you need to do to stay in business and get set up, and then I will work with you,’” Sounders said. “We need to support the restaurants that are being so heavily impacted.”