Littleton’s slate of summer festivals may have been canceled this year to contain the spread of COVID-19, but there could still be fun downtown events on the horizon.
City officials are moving ahead with plans for “Weekends on Main” -- days and evenings where Main Street through downtown would be closed to cars, with bars and restaurants allowed to expand seating onto sidewalks.
The goal is to buoy eateries facing tight restrictions for in-person dining under new state guidelines, and hopefully generate some foot traffic for retailers and other businesses.
Public support has so far been strong -- a whopping 95% of more than 2,000 respondents to a city survey supported the idea.
There are still details to be hammered out. City officials are in ongoing talks with Tri-County Health Department to settle on regulations and logistics to ensure sanitation and social distancing, City Manager Mark Relph said at a May 19 city council study session.
If approved, Littleton would join numerous other metro-area towns embracing outdoor dining, including Parker, Arvada and Boulder.
Though times and dates have not yet been finalized, proposals have ranged as high as from Friday evening through Sunday evening, every weekend until Labor Day, starting as soon as May 29.
With restaurateurs looking at strict limits on indoor seating, business leaders say the plan could make a big difference. Under state restrictions set to take effect May 27, restaurants will only be allowed to seat a fraction of their pre-COVID numbers indoors.
“Restaurants won’t make it on that,” said Greg Reinke, head of the Historic Downtown Littleton Merchants Association, who began advocating for the outdoor seating idea in March. “If the rules stay that way through September, we’ll lose 60% of our restaurants.”
Reinke said the idea is to turn Main Street into a mall-like atmosphere, perhaps with retailers setting up tables and booths outside to supplement their indoor activity.
Reinke said he knows there are concerns that attendees won’t abide by sanitation and distancing guidelines, but he said it’s time to give people a chance to do the right thing.
“My brother fought COVID,” Reinke said. “He was on a ventilator. We nearly lost him. This thing is no joke, but these restaurants and retailers risked everything they have to keep people safe. I don’t care what anyone says, I believe in the human spirit. We can do this.”
The idea is a bright spot in a dark time for restaurant owners like Keven Kinaschuk, who runs McKinner’s Pizza Bar. He’s been scraping by on takeout service since March, and said the looming regulations for indoor dining don’t offer a lot of hope.
Down from a capacity of 140 before COVID, Kinaschuk said he’ll likely only be able to seat about 30 inside under new regulations.
Further, he said, the yet-to-be-finalized regulations place an enormous burden on restaurant staff to enforce what are likely highly unpopular regulations like seating groups no larger than six, breaking up congregating groups, and potentially even making guests sign in so they can be tracked in case of an outbreak.
In light of that, the outdoor dining idea could ease the burden.
“I’m hoping it’s a big success,” Kinaschuk said. “For that matter, why stop at the end of summer? We have great weather -- we could do this darn near until December.”
Not everyone is thrilled. Ruth Graham, who owns Ancient Art Healing Center on Main Street, said she worries the idea will further damage businesses like hers that don’t sell food or impulse items.
“Those of us that are destination businesses, how are our customers supposed to get here, especially if this eats up all the parking?” said Graham, who sits on the board of the Littleton Business Chamber, which supports the sidewalk dining idea. “I support downtown events, but all weekend, every weekend? It’s just too much.”
Graham said downtown events also inevitably leave trash all over the sidewalk, which business owners wind up cleaning. Rather than shut down the whole street, perhaps restaurants could expand into parking lots and alleys, and leave the street as a thoroughfare with parking.
“There are other options here,” Graham said. “At least the restaurants have been able to do takeout. Most of the retailers and businesses have simply been shut down. We haven’t made any money in months, and now they’re going to prolong the damage.”
Reinke said he knows there are risks, but he’ll encourage people to patronize everyone downtown.
“We’ve got to support the restaurants, because that’s what bring the bulk of people down here,” he said. “Without them, we’re all toast. I’ll tell folks, bring an extra $20 and buy a gift card from one of our retailers to give away at Christmas. This is a big experiment. By the end of summer, I’ll either be tarred and feathered or I can run for president.”