The town council voted 3-1 Tuesday to try a very limited version this weekend of the downtown promenade that was halted in a reversal last week.
Easton will use rented barricades to close off the parallel parking spaces along Washington Street in front of Scossa Restaurant & Lounge, Doc’s Downtown Grille, and the Washington Street Pub. Both lanes of traffic will remain open.
Closing the parking spaces will allow the restaurants to expand outdoor dining, creating the opportunity for additional revenue for businesses closed for a time due to the COVID-19 pandemic and currently operating at 50 percent capacity due to continued emergency restrictions.
The parking spaces will be blocked off early Friday morning and the barricades will be removed early Monday.
The vote came Tuesday afternoon following a 90-minute special worksh0p meeting at which the council heard from several officials, but did not take public comment despite several business owners being in attendance.
Council President Megan Cook led the push to take some action in time for the weekend. Councilman Don Abbatiello made the motion to close the parking spaces for the weekend and Councilman Ron Engle voted in favor.
Councilman Al Silverstein opposed the effort, saying the town needed to properly study the plans and talk to downtown business owners after rushing the initial decision to close down the block of Washington Street between Dover and Federal streets.
Instead of closing parking spaces this weekend, Silverstein suggested the businesses take advantage of language in the mayor’s executive orders allowing restaurants to place tables — with permission of adjoining businesses — beyond the restaurant’s storefront.
It was unclear if any restaurants had sought to extend outside dining areas under that provision.
He said the town needed to look at the cost of the street closures and should determine whether a grant program would be a more effective use of the town’s funds.
Silverstein also expressed concern about social distancing as confirmed COVID-19 cases climb in Talbot County and elsewhere.
Easton Mayor Robert Willey had urged action before the vote, noting additional delays could push the issue to the end of summer and restaurants would get little benefit.
“We’re now into the third week talking about this, we’re talking about setting up a meeting next week,that may be two weeks after that, you’re into August, rapidly going into Labor Day,” Willey said. “Before you know it, the summer’s going to be over and we might as well talk about next year because we’ll be too late into the process to get something done.”
Ross Benincasa, executive director of Discover Easton, presented three options for the council to consider:
• Entirely closing the block of Washington Street, but only on weekends
• Closing the parallel parking spaces and the adjacent northbound lane of Washington Street
• Closing the parallel parking spaces and leaving the road open to traffic
Benincasa said the restaurant owners were hoping to have a plan in place for the weekend.
Town Engineer Rick VanEmburgh said the town had rented 10 barricades for the initial plan to close the block to all vehicular traffic and would be able to get 30 barricades by the weekend to close off some of the parking spaces in front of the three restaurants; closing that entire stretch would require 50 barricades.
However, the barricades also may be connected with steel bars and chains, rather than interlocking together, he said.
VanEmburgh said he was concerned about putting up the barricades on Friday afternoons after the courthouse closes.
“How do we move all those vehicles out of the space and then put the barriers in place and then the restaurants get the tables out to the street?” he asked, noting it took town crews several hours to erect the 10 barricades across Washington Street last week.
The town engineer also said he met with a consultant to discuss a traffic study for the street closure, but was told it would take 8-12 weeks and cost $30,000 to $40,000.
VanEmburgh said he also spoke with the state transportation secretary and the state would be willing to look at any planned street closures.