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Outdoor Dining Only: Could Al Fresco eating help Columbia Restaurants survive the summer?

As the economy begins to slowly reopen this summer, outdoor dining could provide a lifeline to help local restaurants earn a revenue stream in addition to takeout and delivery. Al Fresco Dining Is the Restaurant Industry Best Hope, headlines an article on CityLab. The idea is to close city streets or shut down parking lots to traffic in order to make room for properly spaced sidewalk tables or parking lot patios.

In DC, a newly created alliance of business owners, chefs, developers, neighborhood advisory commissioners, and residents released a plan to reinvent 18th Street in Adams Morgan. The idea is to transform the historical roadway into a partial pedestrian and bike zone where restaurants, bars, and commercial businesses could serve customers safely. They are asking that DC leaders expand pedestrian space to permit street retail and outdoor cafes.

In Baltimore, business owners have pitched a plan to close High Street in Baltimore's Little Italy for "curbside-plus" dining, in which customers could pick up food from restaurants, then enjoy it at tables spread six feet apart in a socially distanced, outdoor food court. For now, Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young has put the kibosh on that idea as gatherings of more than 10 people remain prohibited under Governor Hogan's Safer at Home Public Health Advisory.

In Columbia, one can easily imagine the parking lots and public spaces around the mall, lake, or Merriweather being transformed into roped-off, properly-spaced outdoor dining locations. Downtown Columbia (and elsewhere in Columbia and Howard County for that matter) certainly has an abundance of parking lots, parks, and other public spaces available to make this happen.

While we don't know when additional measures will be announced that permit restaurants to expand their offerings beyond pickup or delivery, we know that the gradual reopening of businesses will occur in small incremental steps. It seems reasonable that outdoor dining would be permitted before restaurant interiors are allowed to open. However, even with proper precautions in place, large crowds of people sitting outside (even at spaced-out tables) certainly comes with increased risk that our local leaders will need to consider when making such decisions.

In the meantime, please patronize our local restaurants through takeout and delivery. They need our continued support to help ensure they make it to the other side of this crisis, so they can welcome us, either inside or outside, when the time is right. The Downtown Columbia Partnership has been posted regularly on Facebook about all the delicious options in Downtown Columbia, and even is offering some sweet prizes when you post a photo of your carryout order.


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