With indoor service ending this week at bars, breweries, wineries and more, downtown Walla Walla is moving business to the streets.
The city of Walla Walla and community partners will continue to expand what they’ve done with dining downtown by closing a portion of Main Street to vehicle traffic Friday-Sunday and allowing businesses to set up in the streets.
The change, introduced during a business webinar Monday evening, is a response to COVID-19 restrictions announced last week by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Under the restrictions that begin Thursday, indoor dining is limited to members of the same household and with groups no larger than five — a change for counties that had already advanced to Phase 3 of Inslee’s Safe Start plan.
Mixed groups must dine outside only. No indoor service will be allowed at any bar, brewery, tavern, winery or distillery, regardless of whether they offer food. Gaming areas in restaurants must close, and restaurants must stop alcohol sales at 10 p.m.
The changes triggered immediate discussions in Walla Walla about strategies to help businesses — and consequently the city — survive the biggest rollback since the pandemic-induced closures mid-March.
“The good news is we have a plan,” said Kathryn Witherington, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation at the opening of Monday’s webinar event.
“The less good news is we’re still working on some of the details.”
Changes, she said to the 52 participants on Zoom and about 18 watching via Facebook Live, are likely to be made along the way.
What officials know of their plan so far: Main Street between Palouse Street and Second Avenue will be closed around 6 a.m. every Friday through Sunday starting this weekend and running at least through Labor Day weekend.
Second and Palouse will still be open for traffic. Businesses with permitting through the city expected to be fast-tracked given the over-arching need, will be able to extend to the sidewalk and into the street on these days.
Those serving alcohol will still need to follow guidelines from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, including a barrier of 42 inches for designated service areas.
The concept extends on the concepts already introduced downtown, including the creation of a plaza along First Avenue, the extension of outdoor dining on sidewalks and the buildout of four restaurant “parklets,” all of which has been funded with upward of $400,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds through the city.
The look, however, may not be the same, said Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa.
“There’s simply no way we can buy enough tables, chairs and umbrellas,” he said.
More of those things are on order but will likely be delivered 10 days to two weeks from now, at the earliest, he said. National suppliers are struggling to keep up with orders on such equipment. Despite compliments from the public on the bright yellow umbrellas on First Avenue, Shawa said the choice was not intentional. The city went with what it could get in the face of a struggling supply chain.
Officials said tables and chairs may also be available through the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds. Coordination on the furnishings is taking place through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which will be surveying businesses on their specific needs.
Witherington was quick to acknowledge Monday that many more businesses not on the Main Street core are affected by the rollbacks, and plans are in the works for them, too.
The cluster of tasting rooms along First Avenue between Rose and Main streets, for instance, will be able to expand seating and pouring in the lots directly behind their buildings, rather than in front where traffic and noise is heavy.
Plans for tasting rooms at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center and for tasting rooms in smaller numbers on side streets, such as Wines of Substance, will also be included. And the extension to the sidewalks is offered to businesses off Main that apply for the city’s permitting.
Witherington acknowledged the loss of parking during the road closure. She said some space may be available through businesses that have not yet returned to full in-person operations. Banners installed highlight public lots, and Witherington is reaching out to seek permission from private lot owners to see if spaces can be used by the general public during the closures.
A map of available parking is expected to be generated by the end of the week.
“By the second, third, fourth weekend, it’s going to get better and better.”
Business operators attending the webinar presented ideas for how to build on the community vibe, including with live music. But with such performances not yet allowed, plans could include piping in music through a sound system, or welcoming buskers on street corners.
Retailers are also encouraged to use the sidewalk space and engage with the public during the closures, Witherington said.
The out-of-the-box thinking from the city has already drawn much media attention, and subsequently visitors.
As Walla Walla remains in Phase 2 of the Safe Start plan and with nonessential travel discouraged, the community isn’t actively advertising for tourism.
At the same time, the loss of taxable retail sales generated with the help of visitors is expected to have a negative effect on public budgets. Sales tax is a major component of budgets for government agencies. In 2019 retail sales for the city were $732.5 million. In May 2019 alone, retail sales totaled over $274 million. But the same period in 2020 during the pandemic, and at a time when businesses were starting to reopen, generated $255.6 million in sales.
Shawa said the city wants to be cautious not to invite the virus via visitors from other community hotspots.
“On the other hand, we need revenue to survive,” he said. “It really scares us when we see Main Street empty and nobody checked into hotels.”
In that sense, added Walla Walla Valley Chamber President and CEO Kyle Tarbet, there’s no advertising for guests but guests are also not told they can’t stay.
“Our hospitality industry deserves a lot of credit because we’re not seeing transmission through this industry,” Tarbet said. “As tourism ebbs and flows we have to continue to be vigilant.”
More marketing is expected, however, to be directed to local residents.
“Not everybody is going to be delighted to close down Main Street,” Shawa said. “This is the best solution we were able to come up with.”