Downtown Wilmington’s heartbeat is composed of many parts: gorgeous sunsets over the Cape Fear River, unique retail shops equipped with trinkets and gifts galore, and restaurants and bars aplenty to serve every kind of dish or libation to tickle every fancy. While the city impatiently awaits Governor Cooper’s go-ahead for phase three, which would allow bars to reopen and restaurants to operate at full capacity, Downtown Alive has been hashing a new plan to help restaurants now: opening the streets for al fresco dining. City council voted on Tuesday, June 23, unanimously to allow it, which means restaurants could have more outdoor seating as early as Thursday, June 25.
The idea to close downtown streets and open a pedestrian walk for sidewalk cafés to be set up is a collaboration between the City of Wilmington, the Downtown Business Alliance (DBA) and Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI), according to DBA member Joan Loch. Terry Espy, president of the DBA, has been the most vocal and instrumental in making it happen, navigating what Downtown Alive will look like. Street closures will occur on Front Street between Chestnut and down to Dock, and the 100 block of Princess Street. The streets will be closed off four days a week: Thursday and Friday, 6:30 – 10 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
“The program will run for a total of 45 days over the next 11 weeks unless interrupted by a new stay-at-home-order,” explains Amy Beatty, City of Wilmington community services director.
According to an agenda for the June 23 Wilmington City Council meeting, the cost of the program is $109,500. The $6,000 deposit for the vehicle barriers has been covered by both DBA and WDI. The staffing necessary to pull this off will be provided by Cool Wilmington, a local event management company known for hosting Rims on the River and the St. Patrick’s Day Festival and Parade. Staff will be stationed at barricades, should an emergency vehicle need to get through, and also assist pedestrians. There will be a couple of “floaters” who will walk through the barricaded areas to tend to various needs. (DBA is currently utilizing volunteers to help with social media management and has plans moving forward to delegate responsibilities to volunteer-run committees and encourages interested parties to email them to get involved at email@example.com.)
Many downtown restaurants are happy for the opportunity to serve more guests safely. Also, it allows them to bring in more staff. Front Street Brewery (FSB) has had a little more room to work with by opening their third-floor Beam Room—normally used for private events. The downside is they’ve also had to cancel all events through November.
“Still, even with the SBA and government loans we received, it will be a long time before we are able to truly bounce back from this pandemic,” tells Ellie Craig, FSB’s sales, marketing and public relations manager. Craig says the pedestrian walk will help more. “It will be interesting to see pedestrian traffic along Front Street, which is a concept a lot of members of the community have voiced [wanting] for some time now. . . . Downtown Alive should increase our revenue and provide our guests with some safer outdoor seating, with social distancing in mind.”
Though many community members are happy about Front Street becoming a pedestrian-only zone, the city does have concerns. “Closing Front Street to vehicular traffic could have negative effects on non-entertainment businesses and would result in a loss of parking for employees and customers,” Beatty says, when asked if there are any plans to consider it a more permanent aspect of downtown.
Catherine Hawksworth, owner-operator of Modern Legend, temporarily closed her business a few days ago willingly due to COVID-19 numbers. While she appreciates the city’s ingenuity, she can’t help but feel trepidation toward it helping cases increase in New Hanover County. The county reported its highest number of new positive cases (53) on June 19.
“I just think cases are growing at a fast rate,” she says. “Still, any alternative is better than having a bunch of folks in contained spaces indoors. Opening up so much so quickly is what caused this spike to happen in the first place.”
However, she is entertaining her reopen during Downtown Alive hours. Ultimately, it will come down to the numbers and following her instincts to do what she thinks is best for a community she loves and loves to be a part of. “I think masks should be 100% required if this is approved,” Hawksworth says.
While there isn’t a current plan for Mayor Saffo to require Wilmingtonians to wear masks in public, the city will have signage reminding folks of social distancing guidelines. “[We] will distribute packets to participating restaurants with state and federal guidelines on safe practices,” Beatty adds. “Additionally, sidewalk signage will contain safety messaging, including requesting patrons to wear masks.”
Many restaurants are already handling CDC guidelines strictly for indoor dining purposes. Yet, just a few days ago many restaurants announced temporary closures because of COVID-19 cases reported in their establishments. Others have returned to phase-one protocols, stopping dine-in service to do take-out only. Many places downtown operating for dine-in and takeout are being extra stringent about their cleanliness protocols.
“We are following the same safety procedures as our sister company Rebellion,” says Nikki Shields, CRUST Kitchen & Cocktails general manager. “All staff wear face masks, and we have hospital-grade sanitizer that we spray every table and chairs down with for every guest. We have sanitizer stations in all corners for our staff and guests. We serve in disposable cutlery kits and to-go boxes so that nothing comes back into the kitchen and that staff doesn’t have to come in contact with it other than to throw it in the trash.”
FSB follows similar guidelines and goes one step further by taking the temperature of all staff before each shift. “If we continue to see numbers rise in our area, our patrons will be asked to have their temperatures taken with a touchless thermometer before entering our building,” Craig adds.
Downtown Alive will allow FSB to double their outdoor occupancy to 32 seats at eight tables, while CRUST will add 21 seats. Both restaurants are in support of the program, but recognize the challenges involved. Craig specifically notes it will be difficult for congregating pedestrians to keep their distance from diners just trying to enjoy a meal.
“While we’re doing everything we can to keep our guests and staff safe, I’ve noticed a lot of folks from out of town who do not share that mindset and that’s a cause for concern as a service provider,” she tells.