When the pandemic first began in March 2020, Boulder began thinking of ways to support local businesses forced to shutter or limit capacity.
It instated the Boulder Business Recovery Program, which was approved via emergency ordinance and amended several times. Among other things, the program added curbside drop-off and pickup locations; allowed outdoor dining service area expansions; and facilitated street closures along the west end of Pearl Street and on the University Hill Event Street.
Boulder’s City Council in early September agreed to extend that ordinance, which was set to expire Oct. 31, for an additional six months while the Downtown Boulder Partnership researches ways to continue offering various outdoor dining options for local businesses.
Information from the city indicates the program has largely been well-received by the community. Many of the restaurants taking advantage agree: It’s been a lifeline in a year of pandemic-induced challenges.
OZO Coffee’s West Pearl location did not have much outdoor seating before the pandemic. But thanks to the city-facilitated closure, the coffee shop was able to set up seating on Pearl Street.
For retail manager Topher Haven, it’s “hard to say enough good things about it.”
“There are no downsides for us,” he said. “We absolutely love the outdoor space. Our customers love the outdoor space. We hope it becomes permanent.
“It just creates such a good energy and such a good atmosphere and such a good vibe,” Haven added. “It feels really good to have that walking space out there.”
When the program began, it was in the midst of continued uncertainty for restaurants, according to Dana Query. Query and her husband, Dave, are co-owners of the Big Red F Restaurant Group, which includes three West Pearl restaurants: Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar, West End Tavern and Centro Mexican Kitchen.
Initially, it was hard to know how the street closure might affect business, but Query said its benefit quickly became evident.
“In short, it’s been a true lifesaver,” she said. “What we found, too, is (that) it’s been really enjoyable for our community.”
Members of the City Council appeared to agree last month when they unanimously supported extending the ordinance that allows the West Pearl street closure.
For Mayor Sam Weaver, in addition to supporting businesses that are presently struggling, it is a forward-thinking move.
“Looking ahead and doing something permanent around this will create progress toward that European ideal of space that can be reconfigured for different parts of the day — public space that’s very dynamic and is used for lots of things, including dining,” Weaver said.
Though the Council was largely supportive, they did have one main caveat to consider in planning for a more permanent program: access.
It’s something the city staff brought up, too.
“There is a seasonal difference in the experience, and we recognize that,” Director of Community Vitality Yvette Bowden said during the Sept. 9 meeting. “It also has impacts on access in the area — not just for people in cars, but certainly for folks who are walking or living with disabilities, for the rerouting of the HOP, which has caused some rollover issues and the like.”
This will all be considered as research on a “post-pandemic” program continues. Bowden noted the goal is to balance the needs of businesses, property owners and the city.
Ultimately, while economic recovery has begun, there is a recognition the pandemic is ongoing.
“For us, right now, the main thing that we all can agree on is that we’re not through this yet,” Query said.
“Outdoor dining extensions are a huge part of that recovery,” she said. “It’s helping us repay debts, get on our feet, get back to baseline.”