Open for business

Lucas Neff, bar manager at Pine Tavern Restaurant in downtown Bend, prepares items for the bar shortly before opening the restaurant to customers on Friday, May 15, 2020, the first day that businesses were allowed to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants and other businesses will have more freedom to use sidewalks and private parking lots to better meet social distancing guidelines, and a program that would allow the city to open some downtown streets for restaurant seating is in the works.

The majority of the Bend City Council supports closing some Bend streets to traffic to be used for other retail purposes, while others had concerns that the concept could potentially harm nonrestaurant businesses.

In a 5-2 vote at a meeting Wednesday, the council gave the go-ahead for city staff to create a program for the use of public streets and other public places during the pandemic. The idea is to give restaurants and other businesses, that now have to follow strict social-distancing requirements, more room so they can increase capacity, which in turn will help keep them afloat.

The impact of the distancing requirements at restaurants could be seen last weekend, said Ben Hemson, the business advocate for the city.

“While some were approaching 50%, depending on their layout some were at 20% or 30% capacity and that’s not feasible to even break even,” Hemson told the council Wednesday.

The vote essentially allows city staff to develop a program and entertain proposals from businesses that would be interested in using the street for seating or retail space.

After hearing from the businesses, city staff would share with the council a program designed to best accommodate the businesses that reached out and get feedback about where closures should happen, when and how.

The vote also gives City Manager Eric King permission to relax parking requirements to let businesses with private parking lots use that space for seating or other functions.

A sidewalk program will also be expanded. For example, if a restaurant wants to use the sidewalk in front of adjoining business, that restaurant can apply for a license to use it as long as there is a letter from the next-door business saying it’s OK.

“I think it’s worth giving it a shot and (let’s) see what comes to us,” said Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell.

But Councilors Bill Moseley and Justin Livingston, who supported the general concept using private parking lots and sidewalks, voted against moving forward because of the open streets part of the proposal. Each felt uncomfortable moving forward without seeing a plan or hearing from businesses first.

“I realize timing is important, but I think it’s important to gather information about how businesses are impacted before moving forward so quickly,” Moseley said.

For Cliff Eslinger, chef of the restaurant 900 Wall who originally co-wrote a letter to the city about the concept, having streets open for seating could be the one thing that could keep his restaurant afloat during the pandemic.

900 Wall just recently started doing takeout business after being closed for weeks due to the pandemic.

“We’re making it work, but it’s not going to make us successful,” he said.

Although Eslinger could open the doors for indoor seating, he has concerns. One is that he would only be able to operate at 50% capacity — which is hardly financially sustainable, he said.

The other is the research he has read about the dangers of catching COVID-19 in an indoor space that circulates the same air for hours.

“We were really concerned for our staff to be put through that every night,” Eslinger said.

Having more seating outdoors could solve both of those problems.

“We want to provide a safe environment for everyone (who is) a part of our restaurant family,” he said.

Reporter: 541-633-2160,

bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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