WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is thinking about how it might be able to close Spring Street and allow restaurateurs to take over the pavement if and when the commonwealth issues guidance to allow outdoor table service during its phased reopening of the Massachusetts economy.
Town Manager Jason Hoch on Tuesday told the Select Board that he and his staff have been following the reopening process as it unfolds in other states, reading the tea leaves out of Boston and holding tentative discussions about how Williamstown could follow the path of towns in other states that have created new outdoor dining space to help struggling businesses.
"In that vein, where we can, we're trying to be a little anticipatory about what may come next in those future phases and think about how we can set the table and be prepared to help people move quickly," Hoch said. "I think most notable at this point that we're thinking about — at some point, we fully expect if we look at every other state that has moved on and other countries — when restaurants are allowed to expand beyond takeout, one of the most likely places where they will be able to expand is outdoor seating.
"If you think about Spring Street and sidewalks, social distancing, all the other requirements, outdoor seating in the current built form doesn't really allow for a lot of additional capacity. So for the past few weeks we've been contemplating how we could actually close Spring Street off, most likely for dinner hours, to allow tables out in the street to allow greater capacity for multiple businesses at once downtown."
Hoch said the core of Williamstown's Village Business District has its own complexities around closures to vehicular traffic. Unlike some cities, there is no network of secondary roads behind the buildings on Spring Street that would allow continued access for, say, delivery trucks or residents looking to access the post office.
That is not to say the street cannot be closed, and it routinely is shut down to vehicles several times a year for parades and other special events.
Hoch said even though he does not know when — or how — the state will permit outdoor seating for dining establishments, he wanted to think through the obstacles in advance so that the town is not a roadblock to the idea of a road closure if restaurants need the space.
"I just wanted to plant that seed, let people know we're thinking about it and gather any feedback because for every intriguing idea that exists, there is always someone who sees something we haven't yet," Hoch said. "I'd rather have the chance to see and hear those before we're trying it.
"The other thing I'd note on many of these things, whether it's Spring Street or some other places, is we're trying to figure out the best ways to support things and think about what we do as temporary and tests, in many ways. We may try something, get some experience behind us and decide, ‘That was a great idea,' or, ‘That turned out to be completely unnecessary.' "
The members of the board indicated their opinion that closing Spring Street to vehicles is more likely to be the former.
"I agree 100 percent," Jane Patton said. "I think we have to get way outside the box, comfort zone in order to really have this make a difference. I would also try to find a way to have the retailers who are on the street, if they're normally open during those hours, that they can set up shop outside or they're open for walk-in traffic, or ways to make sure they're also being heard.
"I really want us to avoid all the reasons why it can't work and getting hung up on those and create reasons to absolutely make it work. It's really easy to say, ‘We can't because of this or that or whatever.' Tell everybody their deliveries come before a certain time and then the street's shut down. … Towns are doing it everywhere, and not every town has alternate access via alleys or what have you."
Andy Hogeland mentioned that any such initiative will succeed or fail in part based on how seriously participants adhere to the social distancing and face-covering rules that likely still will be in place when restaurants are allowed to start table service.
"It's an experiment we need to try," Hogeland said. "One of the things that would help make it work is if people felt assured that it will be safe. I think any plan … has to have something about how and who is going to enforce this."
Hogeland said he visited Spring Street over the Memorial Day weekend and found compliance rate with the social distancing and face-covering rules "above average but not total."
"If you want people to come out to eat on Spring Street in the roadway or the sidewalks, they need to feel comfortable that those rules are being followed because they're putting themselves at some risk," he said. "I'm happy to have them try it, but I think it will be more successful if we can assure them that there is some way of dealing with the small minority of people who don't always follow the rules."
Hoch emphasized that everything is in the pre-planning stage at this point and is dependent on the rules issued by Gov. Charlie Baker's reopening advisory board as the commonwealth moves into the next phases of reopening.
And he offered a cautionary tale to illustrate that point.
"Occasionally, guidance is updated by the state," he said. "Sometimes, we know about that guidance in advance. It's challenging in some cases because different industries, different businesses, different organizations are at different places. And different communities are looking for different degrees of guidance as well.
"Last week, we were working with the school district, and Jeff [Kennedy] and I were pretty comfortable from the existing guidance perspective with a first pass at a graduation plan. Thought we had it to bed only to have, late in the day, the commissioner of education released more detailed and different guidance for graduations. So there's a little bit of back to the drawing board on that.
"I expect that as every sector rolls out, we're going to see some of this. Patience and flexibility on all fronts is going to continue to be the watchword."
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