WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On the day the commonwealth began again allowing restaurants to serve diners indoors, the town announced that on Saturday it will temporarily close Spring Street to allow eateries to set up tables in the road.
At the end of Monday's more than 2 1/2-hour meeting of the Select Board, Chair Jane Patton announced that the street will be closed from 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday.
Patton, the vice president of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, said there was unanimous agreement from the street's restaurants in a recent virtual meeting by the chamber that the owners wanted to give outdoor table service a try.
"We recognize that this is not perfect for everybody, and some folks are going to be happy about it and some are not," Patton said. "But until we get in and try it, we're just not going to know."
It was the third time the subject has come up in a Select Board meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Town Manager Jason Hoch introduced the topic some weeks back by saying the town thought it could duplicate models in other towns and cities that have created outdoor dining areas for restaurants who lack a parking area of their own.
Hoch previously pointed out that even when the state reopening guidelines moved from outdoor dining only to indoor and outdoor service, the rules mandating 6 feet between tables will cut down on the number of seats inside restaurants. Plus, some potential customers may feel more comfortable dining in the open air given research that shows transmission of the novel coronavirus is more likely in an enclosed space.
When the town first suggested the idea of temporary closures of Spring Street, much of the reaction in social media was negative, with many residents pointing out potential harm to residents of apartments upstairs from the ground-level stores and restaurants.
Patton used her platform on Monday evening to ask residents to plan ahead for the closure.
On Tuesday, Hoch said the town does not, as a rule, provide formal notice to affected residents of Spring Street closures for events like the July 4 parade, the Memorial Day parade and the annual Reindog parade in December.
"I believe the police have tried to advise in advance," Hoch wrote in reply to an email seeking clarification. "[Police Chief Kyle Johnson] and I discussed [Monday], and he mentioned having enough time to let residents know."
Residents also may have to get used to the idea of another indoor pursuit moving outdoors.
On Monday, the Select Board asked Hoch to come back to the panel with a suggested date for an outdoor annual town meeting.
Hoch told the panel that he had a couple of possible sites in mind but did not want to mention them so early in the planning process.
He told the panel that towns are experimenting with all sorts of indoor and outdoor formats with no real consensus across the commonwealth about what works best. But the guidance from the Department of Public Health is that municipalities consider using outdoor venues if possible.
"An inside meeting is infinitely easier to pull off with a facility we have greater access to," Hoch said. "An outside meeting will likely require more [work] … but it's all totally doable.
"I'm picturing something where there are chairs — either provided by [the town] or bring your own."
(Clarksburg on Wednesday is planning to hold its town meeting in the Senior Center parking lot and has advised voters to bring chairs and umbrellas.)
Hoch said he was disinclined to stage a "drive-in" town meeting like the one held in Great Barrington on Monday night.
"I'm a little wary of having a bunch of potentially idling cars sitting around for two hours trying to keep, potentially, the radios on and/or their air-conditioners on on a night like tonight," Hoch said. "That feels contrary to some of the other aspirations we have in the work we do."
Hoch said that Northern Berkshire County currently has no cases of COVID-19 — including at Williamstown Commons — so there may be a window to schedule the annual town meeting in the summer rather than waiting until the fall when there is the potential for a second wave of the virus.
He also said there is a potential for the Select Board to set a rain date for the meeting, and if there is a spike in the virus after the meeting date is set, the state's enabling legislation that allowed town meetings to be postponed past the June 30 end to the fiscal year also allows Town Moderator Adam Filson to postpone the meeting after consultation with the local Board of Health.
Patton encouraged Hoch to move forward with the outdoor meeting plan.
"I don't think people want to be inside right now with hundreds of other people," she said. "I think it would be highly attended, and we would not want to create an environment where people don't feel safe and therefore don't want to come."
Andy Hogeland, who in the past speculated about the possibility of splitting the town meeting in order to hold more potentially controversial topics for a later date, Monday said he had changed his mind on that notion.
"I've kind of evolved on this," Hogeland said. "Holding a town meeting won't be any different in September or October if we broke it into phases. … Let's try to do one in early August and be done."