The city of Frederick has undertaken a grand experiment to try to decide the question: Can you rescue the restaurant industry and a historic downtown by letting people eat at tables set up in the street?
Three months ago, it would have seemed a dubious idea. Three months hence it will be all over. But for this strange, dislocated summer, it might just work.
Setting up tables in the street is one of several outdoor dining options that are being tried by the city to resuscitate the dining-out industry that has been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since mid-March, restaurants have only been allowed to offer carry-out orders or delivery. Dining in options are being phased in, but with greatly reduced capacity, with half or less of the tables open to the public.
So, in the most dramatic display of the new options, the city is closing two blocks of Market Street — from Church Street north to Market Alley and from Church south to Patrick Street — each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
With a city permit, restaurants in that section of Market are allowed to set up tables in the street. In other parts of the city, they will have other options. The city has installed water-filled barriers that block off parking spaces outside of restaurants for more outdoor seating.
These sections are being called “parklets,” Richard Griffin, director of Economic Development for the City of Frederick, told News-Post reporter Erika Riley. He said that the barriers are quite heavy once they are filled with water, for the safety of guests.
These changes and others are being called pop-up restaurants by the city. Restaurateurs will need permits, but they will be able to add tables to sidewalks, streets, parks and private property as well, all in the goal of expanding capacity.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we know all of this will make a hodgepodge of our historic district this summer. Downtown sidewalks are already difficult to manage during busy times, and the parklet barriers are — how should we phrase it? — really ugly.
But it is something we all must adjust to, and put up with, at least for one summer.
The ordinances allowing the pop-ups will expire at the end of October, or the end of the state of emergency issued by Gov. Larry Hogan to cope with the pandemic, whichever comes first.
The food industry has been strangled by the restrictions of social distancing in the pandemic. No restaurant, no matter how well managed, can survive alone on carryout and delivery. Few would be able to limp along with half their tables empty.
So, the makeshift pop-up dining options are necessary to try to help our local eateries to keep going through tough times.
And keeping our restaurant sector viable is an absolute necessity to keep the downtown district thriving. A downtown is all about shopping and eating, quaint boutiques and trendy bars, new options and old favorites. They are all interrelated economically, and interdependent.
So, for the summer of 2020, the summer of the pandemic, we are willing to give these pop-up dining spots a try, and we will hope for good weather so they can succeed.