City Officials Backtrack on Notice Suspending Sidewalk Seating for Restaurants, Saying It Was a “Miscommunication”

Businesses were notified today they would not be allowed to serve customers seated outside their storefronts this summer. The city now says that was a mistake.

Patrons reunite at the Thirsty Duck Saloon in Oregon City. (Alex Wittwer)

The Portland Bureau of Transportation is walking back a message sent to restaurants and bar owners today announcing it was revoking permits allowing establishments to serve customers seated on sidewalks outside their storefronts.

Around 800 businesses received notice their sidewalk cafe permits would be suspended through October 2020, citing concerns about social distancing as the city prepares to gradually reopen from the statewide COVID-19 shutdown. The city said sidewalk seating would crowd people trying to walk.

"When Multnomah County reopens and enters Phase 1, cafe dining on most sidewalks will not allow enough space to accommodate physical distancing rules," the email read. "We must prioritize pedestrian travel on the sidewalks and clear any obstructions that will not meet physical distancing requirements. Sadly, this includes your sidewalk cafe applications."

The email then encourages those businesses to apply for the recently announced Healthy Businesses program, a plan to convert neighborhood streets into temporary outdoor plazas. Restaurants, bars and retailers can apply to use the sidewalks and parking spaces outside their storefronts as dining and shopping areas.

The news caught many business owners by surprise.

"Our Division [Street] location has outside seating we were heavily relying on," Ryan Rollins, owner of sandwich shop PDX Sliders, told WW about an hour after receiving the email from PBOT. "I guess not anymore."

The bureau now says today's message was a mistake.

"It was a mistake in the way it was communicated," says PBOT representative John Brady. "It gave the impression, the day after we launched a program that was all about trying to find as much capacity as we could, we then sent out a communication that we were decreasing capacity."

Instead, Brady says any business with a sidewalk cafe permit will be automatically enrolled into the new plaza program without having to submit an application. In situations where a restaurant or bar cannot easily find appropriate space to host all the diners it is permitted for, the bureau will work to find "creative solutions" for the business, such as divvying up seating between the sidewalk and parking spaces.

If a business chooses to continue with a takeout and delivery model rather than reopen with restrictions on in-person dining, those businesses are eligible for refunds or to have their permit transferred to 2021, Brady says.

In a tweet, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who has championed the Healthy Businesses initiative, apologized for what she deemed a "miscommunication" and said another email will be sent to permit holders clarifying the situation.

Brady shared a draft of that email with WW:

"Dear 2020 Sidewalk Café Permit Holder or Applicant:

We are very sorry for the confusion our earlier email caused. Unfortunately, the email made it seem like we intended to take away sidewalk seating by suspending the Sidewalk Cafe permit program.

In fact, our goal during these difficult times is to adapt our sidewalks and streets to find as much space as we can for retail, restaurant and other business activity while adhering to all public health guidelines for physical distancing. That is why we launched the Safe Streets|Healthy Businesses program yesterday. The program provides a one-stop permit application process for businesses that would like to use space on city sidewalks or streets to operate while preserving physical distancing for customers and staff.

As a current Sidewalk Cafe permit holder, we will automatically enroll your application in the Healthy Businesses program if you would like. Simply email or call us and tell us you are interested in being enrolled. You can email sidewalkcafe@portlandoregon. gov or call 503-823-5411.

We have heard from some of our permit holders that they do not plan to return to seated dining for the foreseeable future. If this is the case and you have already paid your fees, we will either refund them or issue you a credit for next year.

Thanks to the active voices from your industries, it is clear that we should hold a public discussion about the needs of our sidewalk café permit holders. The Portland Independent Restaurant Alliance (PIRA) is in conversation with us to set up an opportunity for an information session and exchange of ideas.

We will follow up with an announcement of the time and date of the meeting once it is established.

Again, we sincerely apologize for any confusion that this caused."

Related: Portland Officials Unveil Plan to Turn City Streets Into Temporary Outdoor Commercial Plazas.

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