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Outdoor Dining Helps Athens Restaurants Survive

Diners sit outdoors on West Washington Street in October. Credit: Whitley Carpenter

A few months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz and the ACC Commission shut down portions of downtown streets to allow restaurants to more safely seat patrons outdoors.

In doing so, Athens joined a long list of cities that are turning over street space from drivers to diners. Besides closing College Square to traffic as part of a streetscape project at the Broad Street intersection, the commission approved a “parklet” program allowing restaurants to use up to half of the parking spaces in front of those establishments for outdoor dining. Another program, the “outdoor retail area” pilot project on the westernmost block of Washington Street, uses metal barricades to block off parking spaces and two lanes of traffic on weekends to create outdoor space for bars and retailers as well as restaurants.

“I think this will make people feel more comfortable coming downtown to shop, knowing that there is an option for outdoor shopping,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at a meeting last month.

These programs allow businesses to recover some of the revenue lost during the pandemic while helping to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The risk of contracting COVID-19 is substantially lower in open air, according to the CDC. 

In response to general support of the parklets from the restaurant community and a continual rise in COVID-19 cases in Athens, the commission extended the parklets program until Mar. 31 at its Nov. 17 meeting. Owing to concerns about weather, the outdoor retail area pilot project was extended only through the end of the year.

“I’ve eaten at several [parklets], and it seems like they’re working well,” said Girtz, who initially tasked a small group with examining the possibility of adding parklets. “A couple of businesses have said it has made the difference between being profitable and losing money this year, so I’m glad for that.”

With a parklet set up on North Hull Street, Trappeze Pub and other nearby restaurants have observed an uptick in customers, said Becca Johnson, the front-of-house manager for the restaurant. “Right now, everyone wants to sit outside,” Johnson said. “We’ve been making a lot more money than we would have if we couldn’t have extra seating. I would definitely like for it to stay.”

Outside downtown, a section of North Newton Street between The Grit and Taziki’s Café was converted into an outdoor dining area about a month ago. The commission previously considered halting traffic from passing through that short block and setting up chairs and tables on the street years ago, but the proposal failed to pass due to opposition from another business.

Toby Cole, general manager of The Grit, said that since the block has been converted into an outdoor dining area he believes it has helped attract customers. The Grit is offering only take-out and outdoor seating for the time being, and the blocked-off area allows more patrons to sit outside the restaurant and escape the noisy construction on the other side of Prince Avenue that can be heard from the sidewalk, Cole said.

Even after the threat of COVID-19 becomes less serious, Cole said he’d support a move by the commission for the Newton Street outdoor dining area to become a permanent fixture. Whit Richardson, owner of Taziki’s, said he’d need to hear input from the commission, other restaurant owners and Athens residents before deciding whether he’d support the permanent installation of the dining area. 

“We have seen about half our customers using the outdoor patio and half eating inside, socially distanced,” Richardson said. “We have not seen an increase in overall sales. However, we have seen customers who would have gotten take-out utilizing the outdoor dining space.”

With the limited space available downtown, the pedestrian plaza at College Square and the use of parklets could become permanent, said Commissioner Allison Wright. “I think they’re working great,” she said. “We’re trying to balance businesses being able to have the outdoor capacity for people that are choosing to gather and be in groups.”

As the temperature continues to drop, customers may not wish to dine outside in parklets. To counteract this, at its last meeting the commission approved the use of portable, non-electric heaters inside parklets. 

With the temporary suspension of open-container requirements for servers passed by the commission over the summer, restaurants may serve alcoholic beverages to their patrons inside parklets. Bars are currently excluded from requesting parklets, although some wish to be included, said David Lynn, director of planning and outreach for the Athens Downtown Development Authority. In a survey distributed by the county to 20 bars, all but one indicated an interest in participating in the parklet program if it were offered to them. 

Of all 85 businesses that responded to the county’s survey, 58 indicated an interest in participating in the parklet program, while 15 businesses said they’d opt not to participate, and 10 indicated opposition to the program entirely. Those that expressed opposition to the program in the survey were overwhelmingly retail businesses. Lynn said he’s aware of concerns from a few retailers over the loss of street parking, but he’s not aware of any widespread pushback on the parklets. Wright said that because of the pandemic fewer people are coming downtown, meaning fewer parking spots are needed.