Without the concrete barriers in place along Main Street to allow people to dine outside, business owners Todd and Andrea Eichorn aren’t sure what their cafe will look as the weather turns cold and customer safety concerns about eating indoors during a global pandemic remain.
The Eichorns opened La Vita Bella cafe at 471 Main St. in 2018. They started circulating an online petition this week in the hopes of keeping the barriers in place through 2021. They hope to collect at least 1,000 signatures to submit to the city.
“People are feeling more comfortable with a little more space,” Andrea Eichorn said. “As business owners we are concerned with our community and community health. We also have to be concerned with: Can we keep our doors open?”
The concrete barriers were placed along the outer lanes on each side of Main Street between Second and Sixth avenues in early July, following June approval by the Longmont City Council. The city’s aim was to allow downtown businesses the option of extending their operations outside, providing a chance for more customers in a time when the state requires that indoor capacity be limited to 50% prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A portion of the barriers were removed at the end of September, but a request from business owners allowed a single northbound lane from the midblock pedestrian crossing in the 500 block of Main Street and a single southbound lane closed from Fifth Avenue to the mid-block pedestrian crossing of the 400 block of Main Street until Nov. 2.
As of Thursday, the city still plans to proceed with the removal of the remaining barriers at 7 a.m. Monday, Nov. 2, according to Phil Greenwald, Longmont’s transportation planning manager.
“This timing, of keeping some barriers in place until the end of October, seemed to allow for outdoor seating options until the temperatures started to really cool off to the point that not many patrons would be using the outdoor seating (Nov. – March),” Greenwald wrote in an email Thursday.
Greenwald said the city and Longmont Downtown Development Authority are working to discuss “winter-friendly” options for businesses to expand into public space, such as the potential to use alleys and sidewalks, rather than the street. He added that the downtown development authority hopes to engage the city, Colorado Department of Transportation and the community in a conversation about a more permanent solution to help businesses during this time. Keeping the barriers, which would cost about $5,500 a month, in place throughout the winter could present issues Greenwald said.
“Leaving the barricades on Main Street throughout the winter season brings new challenges of snow removal, keeping both drivers and pedestrians safe, as well as decreased usage of outdoor dining,” Greenwald wrote. “Overall the experiment was positive and we hope to find workable solutions for the future.”
Some downtown business owners believe, though, that even with the cold they could keep the outdoor space workable and that it would still draw in more customers than if indoor dining or shopping was the only option. Todd and Andrea Eichorn said they would plan to invest in heating lamps and an outdoor tent for customers during the winter. Both said they believe that people would still opt to sit outside.
Todd and Andrea Eichorn say that since the barriers were put in place, the cafe has seen double the revenue compared to business before the barriers were installed.
“We’ve had people say that outdoor seating is why they’re here and without outdoor seating, they will see us in the spring time,” Eichorn said.
They started an online petition Tuesday and had collected 258 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
“It caught on so fast,” Todd said. “In two hours, we had 108 signatures.”
Amy and James Ross, the owners of Rosalee’s Pizzeria, 461 Main St., signed the petition. While Amy Ross said she has some concerns about the cost to get heating for the outdoor area and how snow would be removed if the barriers were left in place, she said they signed the petition because they want to see a discussion about a longer term solution to help downtown businesses during the pandemic.
“The barriers have been a great thing for us,” Ross said. “It’s been a huge benefit for our customers. We have a small kitchen that can only hold six pies at a time. Having that wait area to have a quick beer while they’re waiting for their pie has been a huge thing, too.”
Ross Hagen, co-owner of the Pumphouse Brewery 540 Main St., said he hadn’t heard of the petition but was in support of seeing the barriers remain in place as long as possible. He said the barriers have helped the restaurant’s business.
“It certainly increased our revenue, though, it wasn’t near what it was pre-COVID,” Hagen said. “But all things considered having this expansion has certainly helped us maintain some of that revenue that we otherwise would have lost.”
While Hagen said he recognizes that the barriers would make snow removal difficult, their removal and the upcoming cold weather does raise concerns about what business will look like at the restaurant in the months to come.
“That’s a total of 31 tables (including the restaurant’s outdoor patio) that will be affected,” Hagen said. “Without any lifting or easing of the indoor restrictions, it’s certainly a concern that we are going to lose half the revenue that we have been doing.”
Hagen said he plans to use outdoor heat lamps and keep the restaurant’s outdoor patio, which has 17 tables, open year round. Normally, the patio closes in December and re-opens in February, depending on the weather.
In a meeting Tuesday with the Colorado Restaurant Association Gov. Jared Polis encouraged municipalities to think about ways to continue outdoor dining safely during the winter months through the use of “things like fire pits, space heaters, and tenting,” according to a news release from his office. Polis also expressed his support of the Restaurants Act, a bill that was introduced into the House in June and would make $120 billion in grants available to food and beverage businesses.
On Monday, Polis plans on being part of a virtual conference to further discuss support to restaurants and “creative” solutions for outdoor dining, the release said.
Greenwald said that city officials will be monitoring these workshops. He added that the circulation of the petition to keep the barriers in place reinforces that the effort helped local businesses as intended. Greenwald said that despite the petition, the current plan is still to remove the barriers as scheduled.
Back at La Vita Bella cafe, Todd and Andrea Eichorn said with winter coming, business owners are bracing for challenges.
“It’s been kind of a predicament for a lot of business owners,” Todd said. “Do they go dormant? Do they close down? When I say dormant, I mean wait six months until things are safer. Or do they just keep going?”
To see the petition, visit https://tinyurl.com/outdoor-petition.