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Portland Walks Back Its Plan to Revoke Sidewalk Cafe Permits [Updated]

Earlier today, business owners received an email saying all their sidewalk cafe permits would be suspended until October. Now, the city says it’ll transition those permits into the city’s new plaza-style outdoor dining plan.

Sidewalk Seating
Sidewalk seating at a restaurant in Portland, Maine. Portland, Oregon won’t be able to have any sort of sidewalk seating until the fall, according to an email sent to business owners this afternoon.
Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Multnomah County officials announced that they hoped to begin opening restaurant and bar dining rooms on June 12. Many restaurant owners, still worried about the potential spread of the virus within enclosed spaces, looked toward outdoor dining as they consider plans to reopen — with sidewalk seating, and, hopefully, on closed-off streets. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has helped expedite this plan, fast-tracking alcohol licenses for outdoor spaces. The city even released a new outdoor dining initiative, allowing restaurant, bar, and cafe owners to apply for permits to transform their parking lots and other outdoor spaces into dining areas with a Healthy Business permit.

Many Portland business owners, then, were surprised to receive an email from the Portland Department of Transportation this afternoon, telling them that all sidewalk cafe permits had been revoked until October 1. “When Multnomah County reopens and enters Phase I, café dining on most sidewalks will not allow enough space to accommodate physical distancing rules,” the email reads. “We must prioritize pedestrian travel on the sidewalks and clear any obstructions that will not meet physical distancing requirements.” Portland restaurant owners started sharing their outrage on Twitter, concerned about the even further reduced capacity their businesses would have.

John Brady, the communications director for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says that choice was an oversight. Now, the city will let business owners automatically transition their sidewalk cafe permits into Healthy Business permits, which are free and allow for more space within other public areas. “We made a mistake and we have to own that,” Brady says. “Under a traditional sidewalk permit, it’s not possible to do outdoor seating and maintain safe physical distancing... We’re sending out new communication to folks so if they want outdoor seating, they don’t have to re-apply now, we’ll just make them a part of the program.”

Many business owners, when they first saw the email, expressed concern that their business is nowhere near a parking lot or easy side street, or that they share parking with other businesses that may not want restaurant seating within the lot. Brady says the Healthy Business permits should be able to accommodate restaurant owners in these sorts of situations, as well. “The example I’ve been using is, let’s say your current sidewalk permit allows six tables outside your restaurant,” he says. “So under the healthy businesses approach, maybe we spread out three tables so they’re safely social distanced, and we put three tables in the parking lane.”

The one potential issue with this new system is that it could involve some delays, since each restaurant that chooses to get a Healthy Business permit will need to work directly with the city. “We don’t know how many requests we’re going to get,” he says. “We have 140 applications already since yesterday, and of course, the timing will be determined by the reopening of the county.”

For restaurant owners like Kate Wood, co-owner of cocktail bars Aalto Lounge and Wonderly, and Thai curry spot Bang Bang, the initial decision felt catastrophic. “I’m fucking devastated,” Wood had said before the decision was changed. She and her husband and co-owner Alex Wood were cautiously optimistic about reopening Wonderly, their lovely and stark white modernist cocktail lounge. Despite the limited indoor seating, there’s plenty of room on the sidewalk for tables to be six feet apart, but the decision to revoke sidewalk dining licenses had the couple convinced they wouldn’t be able to reopen. “Alex and I were hopeful,” Wood had said. “We were excited to expand our seating... It extends our footprint and it helps us to survive. It might not be worthwhile to open Wonderly. 15 people inside doesn’t pay our rent or our employees.”

Even owners of some of Portland’s most popular spots had serious concerns. “It’s basically a death knell for people who don’t have patios or can’t get the healthy street license,” said Eric Nelson, co-owner and bar manager at the lauded Eem. “If we can’t get tables outside, we’re a to-go restaurant, and we’re a to-go restaurant that is competing with all the places that have outside seating.”

Deepak Kaul, the owner and chef of the bright and casual Kashmiri counter-service restaurant Bhuna, had numerous unanswered questions about street seating if sidewalks ended up off the table. “If I can move my current tables to the street, then I’m good. But who is going to approve it?” he said. “Will there be a barrier around so you don’t get hit by a car? Is it my job to provide safety with barriers? There’s no one telling us anything now.”

Brady says the Portland Bureau of Transportation will send out new emails to business owners with information on how to roll over their sidewalk cafe licenses, and next steps for the reopening process. “We’re really sorry,” he says. “We want to try to find as much seating capacity as possible [outside], not reduce it.”

Updated May 29, 2020 4:44 p.m.
This story has been updated to reflect the update to the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s plan.

Portland Could Reopen Bars and Restaurants As Early As June 12 [EPDX]
Portland Might ‘Reopen’ on June 12, But Many Restaurants Won’t [EPDX]
Portland Streets Can Turn Into Outdoor Plazas With New Permitting Program [OPB]
OLCC fast-tracks restaurant, bar applications to expand alcohol sales to city sidewalks, streets [Oregonian]