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City hopes fewer Covid cases and cooler temps will boost open-air business pilot

Tuesday, September 8, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Austin’s Covid-era pilot for safe outdoor shopping and dining has been running since June 15, but not many local shops and restaurants have sought to take advantage of the program so far. During the first 10 weeks of Shop the Block!, the city has received a total of 12 applications from seven businesses for the open-air shopping and dining permit.

In the wake of weeks of triple-digit temperatures, Shop the Block sponsor Council Member Leslie Pool said she is not surprised by the current level of participation.

“I knew going in that having something like this kick off in July or August was going to mean a slow start because mostly people aren’t outside in the heat of the day,” Pool told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday.

As of Aug. 25, the Austin Center for Events has issued six permits for the pilot. Two applications are in review and two were denied. Another two were canceled when Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars on June 26, the next week after applications opened.

Of the six permits approved, two were application renewals. Under the current process, permits must be renewed every 30 days, a requirement that Pool’s office has identified as an unnecessary barrier for local businesses.

“I think we’ll have more chances to try our hand at it before December and I hope the pilot will continue into next year,” she said. “I do want to change it to a registration program and not a permitting program to make it abundantly clear that we are not setting hurdles in front of people for them to leap over.”

Pool’s office was initially aiming to allocate CARES Act grant funds to help cover application and other pilot costs for participating businesses, but the program did not qualify as an eligible use of the federal dollars.

Only one of the six approved permits was issued additional fees for the permit application, due to involvement of the Austin Fire Department. Bill Manno, program manager at Austin Center for Events, said in a memo last week that the business was issued $357 in fees due to the scale of the request, which included installing two large tents on the property.

“It’s supposed to be just as simple as possible,” Pool explained.”You have a sidewalk in front of your coffee shop, you come to the city – say you want to put out four tables and eight chairs – and you can register for the program, pay a minimal amount of money – next to nothing, in my mind – and then you get the opportunity to use the public space that’s right adjacent to your front door.”

Businesses wanting to use a small area of the sidewalk for customers are charged an application fee of $100 along with a $76 inspection fee and a $50 refundable deposit. Participants must also pay a $50 use fee every 30 days.

The pandemic has also kept foot traffic down since June. Austin entered Stage 4 of its risk-based guidelines 11 days after the program launched, advising people to avoid just the kinds of non-essential shopping and dining the pilot is intended to support.

With the city back in Stage 3 as of Aug. 25 and temperatures dropping, Manno said participation may increase in coming months. Hoping to break through to reach businesses that could benefit from the program, Pool said the city is “redoubling” its outreach efforts through Dec. 15, when the pilot is set to expire.

“I’m really pretty optimistic we will see plenty more businesses register for the program so they can take advantage of the liberalization on the use of public space that this offers,” she said. “Obviously there are a couple of hiccups, but nothing that has caused anybody any concern about the legitimacy or the viability of Shop the Block. So I’m looking to be able to take advantage of having a latte on the sidewalk myself when things cool off a bit.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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