Looking at temporary expansion

Customers sit at tables outside Bucer’s on Tuesday on Main Street in Moscow. The city of Moscow is considering offering businesses space on public rights of way, primarily on Main Street, to provide more capacity for patrons while maintaining social distancing in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The city of Moscow could allow downtown businesses to temporarily expand into public sidewalks and on-street parking stalls so they can entertain more patrons while maintaining proper social distancing, City Supervisor Gary Riedner said.

Moscow City Councilors and the downtown business community are receptive to the concept but noted there are still several details to work out.

“I think the devil is going to be in the details, and I don’t think that should stop us from moving forward on considering this at all,” Councilor Art Bettge said. “I’d like to see us do it quickly, too.”

Riedner presented a few options at Monday night’s city council meeting. Councilors and staff discussed the possibilities but no decision was made. Staff will continue to research the alternatives and address potential issues.

Idaho moved to Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s four-stage economic reopening plan Saturday.

As long as businesses follow safety and sanitation protocols, establishments, including restaurant dining rooms, were allowed to reopen.

Riedner said at the council meeting that social distancing protocols limit the number of patrons businesses can have, so the city started researching ways that would help businesses increase the number of customers they can serve while maintaining proper social distancing.

“We’ve allowed expansion of sidewalk cafes for festivals in the past, but we haven’t taken it in a wholesale fashion as we would in this case,” Riedner said.

The proposed temporary expansion of businesses onto public rights of way could last into early fall, but Riedner said it depends on how the state reacts to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One alternative would be to temporarily block off vehicular traffic on Main Street from Seventh Street to the north couplet so businesses could expand into the public rights of way.

Another option Riedner proposed would be to temporarily disallow on-street parking on both sides of Main Street so businesses could utilize the parking stalls for customer tables and other business operations.

The third alternative, which Riedner said is recommended by city staff at this time, would be to allow business owners to ask the city for use of a parking stall and sidewalk adjacent to their businesses. Riedner said the third option would allow Main Street vehicular travel to continue and would hopefully save plenty of parking stalls for cars.

He said businesses would still need to keep the required amount of sidewalk clearance to allow pedestrians to pass through.

Riedner also said the city plans to ask Little’s office if it can temporarily allow Moscow businesses — which wish to temporarily expand and have the appropriate alcohol and liquor licenses — to serve alcoholic beverages on sidewalks and in parking stalls.

Moscow Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jenny Ford said Tuesday she recently spoke with owners of various types of downtown businesses and they said they appreciate that the city is looking for ways to assist and that if an alternative helps neighboring establishments, then they are in favor of the experiment.

Ford said the city is meeting with downtown business owners via Zoom Thursday morning to discuss the options and obtain feedback.

“The goal of this experiment is to help our local businesses be as successful as possible in this really unique time,” Ford said.

Councilors Bettge, Sandra Kelly and Brandy Sullivan said Tuesday they favored the city’s current recommendation of allowing businesses to request a parking stall and sidewalk space to expand their business.

But, they all said certain details and potential problems need to be investigated before a plan is implemented.

Concerns listed included how social distancing would be enforced; business operations potentially impeding sidewalk traffic; keeping those with mobility issues safe and considering their needs; preserving parking spaces, including takeout spaces, for businesses that do not wish to expand; identifying the number of tables allowed in a parking stall to determine if businesses would even want to occupy a space; and helping businesses outside the downtown area expand to public rights of way if needed.

“It’s all about keeping people safe, and I don’t know exactly how we do that if there’s not some sort of enforcement, so I worry about that a lot,” Kelly said.

Riedner said a company’s permit for its expansion into public rights of way could be revoked if it is not in compliance.

Bettge said there would be a checkerboard of tables and parking, meaning some businesses would have tables in parking stalls and others would not.

“I’m not sure I feel too comfortable sitting at a restaurant table in the parking slot when somebody’s navigating their giant Ford Excursion into the parking space right next to me,” Bettge said. “That could prove to be a little disconcerting to my digestion.”

He said perhaps leaving a parking space in between parking and restaurant tables would help solve the problem.

Bettge said businesses that close at 5 p.m. could donate their parking spaces to restaurants and other businesses which are open at night.

Sullivan, who co-owns One World Cafe, said she is unsure if she would use the sidewalk or a parking stall for her business, which is only open to online ordering, delivery and takeout.

She said she probably would not at this point because her business’s outdoor tables, which opened Saturday to customers, have not been fully occupied yet. But as the weather and customer confidence improves, her plans could change, she said.

“I like that it allows individual businesses to decide what’s best for them,” she said.

Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to gcabeza@dnews.com.

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