By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
The 100 block of King Street looked a bit different last weekend, with residents walking down the middle of the street and outdoor restaurant seating extending onto sidewalks and parking spaces.
The city closed the block to vehicular traffic in order to make room for more outdoor dining at restaurants that have struggled in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now that Northern Virginia has entered phase one of reopening, restaurants are allowed to offer outdoor dining. While there were plans to convert lower King Street into a pedestrian zone as part of a pilot program this summer, the recent 100 block closure is not part of that pilot.
The street closure resulted in crowds of excited diners and residents eager to leave their homes after months of being cooped up.
“People were great. People wanted to get out. The response was awesome,” Dave Nicholas, partner at Alexandria Restaurant Partners, said. “I love what they did with the 100 block and hopefully it’s something that will be more permanent. The feel was awesome. I just heard all weekend, over and over, ‘Oh, this is so awesome. This is great. This feels great.’”
Under the new design for the 100 block, the street is completely closed to vehicular traffic, with a 22-foot pedestrian walkway down the center of the street flanked on either side by outdoor seating for restaurants.
Phase one of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (VA-D) reopening plan allows restaurants to offer outdoor dining at a limited capacity in order to ensure tables are distanced from one another in accordance with the state’s social distancing guidelines. Phase one will continue for at least another week in Northern Virginia, Northam announced on Tuesday.
To help restaurants make more room, the city has relaxed its outdoor dining regulations. Restaurant owners can apply to expand outdoor dining onto sidewalks, into parking spaces and in parking lots in front of or adjacent to their businesses, with some restrictions.
Restaurateurs throughout the city are eligible to apply. Del Ray Café was approved to use its parking lot for outdoor dining and Fontaine Café and Creperie, which is just outside the
100 block of King Street on South Royal Street, has set up tables and chairs in a few parking spots.
“Basically, anything we can do that doesn’t impact overall quality of life but facilitates socially distanced outdoor dining, we’re trying to do,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.
The 100 block of King Street stands as the city’s most dramatic outdoor dining hub. Although the current design for the block is not attached to the city’s King Street Place concept – a proposed pedestrian zone pilot program that council was supposed to vote on before COVID-19 hit the region – it’s still informed by research and conversations staff had with local businesses, Wilson said.
The King Street Place concept involved keeping one lane of traffic open as a dedicated pick-up and drop-off lane.
Maintaining the balance between the restaurant community’s need to get on its feet and the public safety of the broader Alexandria community has become the city’s priority.
“The restaurants have been hurting and we really wanted to give them an opportunity to safely take advantage of moving to phase one,” Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said. “You want some crowds, but you don’t want too many because you want people to be able to socially distance. It seemed like there was a pretty good balance this weekend.”
For restaurants in and around the 100 block, the beginning of phase one and the street closure have brought some business back to their doors – even if it’s nowhere near enough.
“Business was good, but it’s sad to say when you’re doing 40 percent of your normal volume that you’re happy – and we were happy,” Nicholas said.
Business might not technically be booming, but being able to get employees working again and give customers the experience of eat- ing at their favorite restaurant was a morale boost for restaurants in the area.
“Everybody’s just been so happy. A lot of the customers have been extremely happy and that’s reflected not only in their attitude but in how people have been tipping, really taking care of the staff,” Will Smith, owner of Virtue Feed and Grain, said.
Not everybody is happy with the new King Street design. Some residents and businesses have expressed concern about overcrowding on the now closed street and customers’ disregard for Virginia’s alcohol laws and the governor’s face covering mandate.
Under the governor’s orders, the Alexandria Health Department is primarily tasked with making sure businesses are complying with state health guidelines, including the face covering rules, which require all Virginians to wear masks when they are inside businesses.
Outside, things are different. Restaurants can control what goes on inside the limits of their property, but things get more complicated when people are congregating on curbsides and just off property.
“We’re trying to mark out spaces on the sidewalk to let people know to keep a safe distance. Other than that, you have to just hope that people will practice that safe distance because we really can’t have control over what happens beyond this alleyway here,” Smith said.
When the situation does get more concerning, as it did on a few weekends in May when King Street was filled with crowds in the streets, the police have a limited ability to take action.
“I happened to be down there checking on it and I noticed it was a little bit out of control, one of those warm Sundays,” Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said. “So, we started putting an assigned group of officers down there. … We have a continuing detail down there seven days a week, reduced on the weekdays.”
The police can address crowds of 10 or more people, which are still prohibited in Virginia’s phase one reopening, and enforce violations of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.
In response to complaints about customers treating the city’s new take home alcohol service like takeout and congregating to drink in the streets, representatives from Virginia ABC, the AHD and APD met with restaurateurs in the area in May.
“Our goal is not so much to put people out of business or harass them,” Brown said. “It’s for the public health emergency that we’re in, to get people to wear the mask as appropriate and social distance. As yet, we have not had to put anyone in jail or give a ticket for that stuff.”
With limited enforcement capabilities, city officials hope residents abide by the rules around social distancing and mask wearing of their own volition, the mayor said.
“The last thing we want is for police to arrest anyone or anything like that or write a ticket for that matter. The goal is voluntary compliance, so hopefully with visibility and encouragement, folks are going to play by the rules and be safe,” Wilson said.
Outside of public health concerns, some restaurants expressed frustration with what the reopening means for those outside the 100 block of King Street. These restaurant owners declined to speak on the record.
In some cases, it’s proven hard to get approved for expanded outdoor dining without the resources of large restaurant groups, one restaurant owner said. For smaller restaurants, the prospect of reopening with such limited capacity can seem questionable at best.
“… In working with some of these restaurateurs, there’s been the concern, ‘Can I make enough money? Is it worth my while to do two parking spaces?’” Charlotte Hall, the advocacy chair for the Old Town Business Association, said.
Hall has been working to assist those outside the 100 block. As a liaison between businesses and the city, part of Hall’s job has involved working with city officials to turn a constant stream of “nos” into a workable plan for outdoor seating.
“The restaurateur is stressed to the hilt already. I want to be there to say, ‘Ok, you’ve told him everything he can’t do. Now I want you tell him what he can do,’” Hall said.
The city has been turning around applications for expanded outdoor dining in 24 to 36 hours, but some businesses still feel left out in the cold, especially with the 100 block of King Street drawing in so many people.
Restaurant owners on the 200 block have already expressed interest in extending the closure up to their block, and the city is evaluating whether or not a similar concept on the 200 block could work, Moritz said.
Critics of what’s happening on King Street fear that the summer sun and expanded outdoor dining could create a troubling scenario in the middle of a pandemic that’s still hitting the region. In the meantime, supporters hope the change could be a model for how to keep restaurant owners, employees and customers going during the crisis.
“Now’s not the time to say, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s gonna work.’ Right now it’s a plus, an enhancement,” Hall said. “It’s putting money into the pockets of our businesses. It’s keeping our businesses open another day, another week. And people are coming out. Better to give them something to enjoy and something that is memorable in Alexandria.”