PHOTO: On Sept. 11, E Street was officially closed off and the parking spaces were turned into more outdoor dining and walkable space for patrons.
By Alexandra Zurborg,
When COVID-19 first hit Davis, many people worried about the state of the small businesses in downtown. Many of them had to close for at least a month due to health and safety reasons. With a multitude of small businesses at risk and businesses such as the Davis Sport Shop, Crucial Vibes and Bistro 33 closed, the City of Davis knew it had to do something.
With the help of the Davis Chambers of Commerce and the Davis Downtown Business Association (DDBA), they came up with the solution called Open Air Davis.
“The Chamber, Davis Downtown Business Association and the City knew it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to create huge challenges for local businesses in Davis,” said Joe DiNunzio, the 2020 chair of the Davis of Commerce. “They needed a lot of support to try and create an environment so that they could operate.”
They started brainstorming ideas early on, implementing ideas as early as two weeks after the closures. One idea was curbside pickup and designated areas where people can get their takeout food.
As it became more clear that the pandemic would leave more of a lasting impact than anyone expected, the DDBA, the Commerce and the City decided to come up with a more semi-permanent solution.
“Among these ideas came this notion of moving restaurants outside, we all know that the virus’s impact is mitigated if you’re outside wearing a mask,” DiNunzio said. “So that’s when you start moving restaurants experiences outside to reduce the risk of allowing any infection, which then lets them open up.”
Further research about this idea started in early May. This involved coordinating with the City, gathering ideas from other towns nearby and having more of an online presence.
“For approximately a month and a half we worked closely with the City of Davis and polled our downtown businesses to gather data and opinions in relation to street closures,” said Brett Maresca, executive director for the DDBA.
The City supported this idea and it didn’t take long before it was put into effect. Sarah Worley, a board liaison for the DDBA and a business engagement manager for the City of Davis, was a part of the collaborative process between the City and the Davis businesses.
“The City was supportive of the street closure concept and expedited its approval in a couple of weeks. Open Air Davis evolved as a collaborative City and business community partnership with input from downtown businesses and City staff evaluating a number of street closure options,” Worley said. “An additional important element of Open Air Davis is the City’s new, no-fee, expedited, temporary-use permits that allow outdoor dining and other business activities to occur on public sidewalks, parking and park areas.”
It took about a month and a half for the DDBA and the city to work together and by late June, things started to kick off. The closure of G Street and part of 2nd Street began on June 26. However, those streets were only closed off from 6 a.m. on Friday to 8 a.m. on Monday. This continued until Sept. 11.
Creating these spaces for outdoor seating isn’t the only thing the city or the DDBA has done.
“Davis Downtown sponsored a gift card stimulus program to bring needed cash to downtown businesses,” Worley said. “It is promoting business participation in Open Air Davis opportunities and keeping its member businesses informed about business support resources available and state and county business operation guidelines.”
With local businesses running on a thin margin, any help bringing in revenue, advice or support was needed.
“The chambers worked quite closely with the City to make sure that all the relevant information around operations, safety and Yolo County health information was provided to the businesses. That we connected them with financial advisors that helped them apply for federal, state or local relief. Sometimes it’s loans, fee relief, it really just depends,” DiNunzio said.
The chamber also hosted financial seminars and workshops. Usually, workshops are only open to members, however when the pandemic started, they were opened to everyone.
Another unique thing the Chamber and the DDBA does is surveying their members to make sure everything is operating smoothly. This is a way to get feedback to improve the current conditions. This started in April and then again in July.
With this tool, the DDBA found out that the 2nd Street closure was not as successful as the G Street one.
“We, along with the City, had initially decided to close one block of 2nd Street as there was the hope and plans to have some of our downtown food vendors mobilize with pop-ups or food trucks on the weekends in that area while perhaps even showing outdoor movies or other forms of low key and carefully monitored outdoor entertainment,” Maresca said. “Those plans got thwarted since COVID cases started rising sharply again.”
With that information, they started eyeing down other spaces to close off. The E Street Plaza was considered as a potential location by the DDBA and was officially opened to the public on Sept. 11. Half of the parking spaces in the area are gone and were replaced with picnic tables under a white tent.
“Businesses that don’t offer outdoor seating can now direct their customers to the E Street Plaza to sit and enjoy what should now be turning into beautiful early fall weather,” Maresca said.
Although all this effort is being put in to make sure businesses are thriving, some businesses had to learn how to adapt on their own. Terri Whitaker owns a hair salon downtown and the COVID pandemic hit her business hard.
“The closures have affected my hair salon a lot. Six months without everyday clients made no income,” Whitaker said. “I took a course with Barbicide for sanitation reasons. Cosmetologist exams are all about sanitation so I don’t know why we had to close our doors. It’s safer in my salon than going to the market.”
However, senior Jesse Smith is not pleased with the changes downtown. Smith expresses how important parking is downtown, and taking it away doesn’t seem like the smartest decision.
“I do not like the changes downtown. I believe they may be hurting businesses by restricting traffic. Downtown is already a mess and closed streets just adds to the chaos. Not to mention parking,” Smith said. “The city should open the streets back up and we need more parking.”
However, others firmly disagree. “I like the changes to downtown because it allows for more outdoor seating which makes it possible for people to still eat and drink downtown while being six feet apart,” junior Ella Helge said. “The only improvements that I can think of for downtown would be to have hand sanitizer everywhere, but I feel like they are doing a pretty good job at keeping people safe.”
Junior Drew Liu agrees with Helge, “[The changes downtown] are absolutely necessary in order to maintain a safe environment for people to still be able to enjoy some semblance of normalcy,” Liu said.
“One thing that will always hold true is that people have a variety of opinions, and we definitely respect that. We always welcome feedback, and listen to concerns as well as ideas on how we can continue to improve our downtown and support our businesses,” Maresca said.
There are still some big ideas for the future, especially with the DDBA having to adapt to the changing weather.
“The outdoor seating and weekend street closures are temporary and developed in response to COVID-19 public health restrictions. Adaptations for seasonal weather have not been addressed,” Worley said.
“We see this going on through at least November, and possibly longer depending on the weather and perhaps extension of COVID-19 health mandates into the winter months,” Maresca said. “But weather will definitely be an issue for open air accommodations and we are currently working on discussing with the City and other organizations and service providers to offer some options and solutions to businesses.”
With Halloween around the corner, the DDBA has already been putting together ideas that will fit with COVID guidelines if they are still in place by then.
“What we are already planning for is modifying our ‘normal year’ Halloween event into a week long program called the Seven Days of Halloween,” Maresca said. “We will be spreading out some fun, engaging and safe activities throughout our downtown to attract people of all ages, but not all at one time. We plan for dozens of businesses to participate in several different ways, including spreading out candy distribution to kids on days leading up to Halloween but not on Halloween Day itself to prevent thousands of people coming downtown all at once.”
The DDBA, the Chambers of Commerce and the City are doing everything they can to give a sense of normalcy in any shape or form while giving businesses the proper environment to keep their doors open.
“Our primary goal is to help market our downtown businesses in creative and innovative ways while making it safe and enjoyable for our community and out of towners to visit. We work tirelessly for our downtown’s survival and prosperity,” Maresca said.
“A lot of it has been providing expertise to these businesses to help them adapt,” DiNunzio said. “At the end of the day there’s not that much impact we could have as the chamber on the pandemic, but we can help the people that we support local businesses adapt to their current conditions.”
For more information, head to the Downtown Davis website at https://davisdowntown.com/open-air-davis/.