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As restaurants brace for opening, city looks at building their capacity outdoors

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Downtown Walla Walla

Al fresco dining in Walla Walla could be seriously spiced up under a plan to help restaurants reopen.

The Walla Walla City Council on Wednesday will consider a proposal designed to assist restaurants and other businesses as they prepare to emerge under Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening strategy, expected to take effect locally by at least next Tuesday if not sooner.

Among the ideas being floated: partially closing one of downtown’s side streets to hold tables and chairs for guests to dine outside and closure of a portion of Main Street a night each week through summer to allow restaurants and retailers to spill out and maintain distance.

Under reopening restrictions, restaurants can only operate at 50% of capacity, a limitation that may inhibit some from returning just yet or from shifting away from curbside or takeout options with their expenses potentially not offset by revenues.

But the prospect for success could be improved if their capacity was expanded outside, Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said.

“Everything we’re hearing from epidemiologists says stay outside,” Shawa said this morning.

Closing down roads and spilling seating beyond sidewalks and potentially into the streets would accomplish that, he said.

Although the fine details are still being determined, Shawa hopes with Council’s approval to move on it quickly.

The idea was first broached at the tail end of a City Council meeting two weeks ago. Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. meeting via Zoom (ubne.ws/wwcitycouncil or call 971-247-1195 with meeting ID 608 332 135#) will explore possibilities with Council.

“We’re just going to try to be as creative as we can, draw from what other cities are working on and put our restaurants and retailers in the best position to make the most of this year,” Shawa said.

With federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act designed to help with community recovery, the city has already purchased tables and chairs, eliminating the investment businesses would have to make upfront themselves.

The equipment use will likely be coordinated with the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, which would eventually have ownership of the tables and chairs for future events when the need for current efforts curtails, said foundation Executive Director Kathryn Witherington.

She said she and Shawa have discussed the idea with restaurant operators to gauge interest.

“There was definitely curiosity at first and when they realized they didn’t need to buy tables, there was acceptance,” she said.

The removal of such financial barriers is a significant piece as businesses prepare to meet requirements with spacing and personal protective equipment.

Witherington said the foundation is also working on an idea for optional window stickers for downtown businesses that want them, encouraging guests to maintain distance and wear masks.

She said ideas that build downtown as a desirable neighborhood gathering place are returning to the forefront in the discussions about encouraging guests. Replacement of the tree lights is an example, though Witherington acknowledged it is not the most immediate focus in the reopening.

“What I am heartened by is that in the last two weeks I have seen a bit of a shift on everyone part from reactive planning to proactive planning,” she said.

“There’s a plan coming together now to encourage our community to feel safe coming back out.”

Other concepts could also include the use of banners on the street posts to continue highlighting local businesses and activities through the reopening.

On Wednesday the City Council is expected to vote on a proposed ordinance that would make way for the road closures.

The idea is one Council members said should be explored during their regular meeting two weeks ago. Councilwoman and downtown business owner Susan Nakonieczny gave a resounding sign of support for the journey into the concept. Councilman Ted Koehler also said at the time he’d like to see the city do everything it can to help the business community.

Koehler said the city could look at extending the idea beyond downtown into other commercial corridors, including Eastgate.

“I think of the businesses are on board and we can find a way to make it happen and the staff can, I’m all for that kind of stuff,” he said. “We need to advocate.”

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.