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In an effort to support local restaurants navigating the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, New Haven has helped them expand outdoor dining space by closing sections of city streets.

On College Street and other downtown streets, restaurants have moved tables out onto the sidewalk and into the parking lane for expanded outdoor dining. The initiative, which began with restaurants on College Street after Elm City Social owner John Brennan started a petition, has since branched out to other areas, including Orange Street. In June, Brennan created a Change.org petition, which requested the city to close down the section between Chapel and Crown streets so that restaurants could expand their outdoor dining operations. Ultimately, the initiatives moved forward with cooperation between restaurant owners and local officials.

Restaurant owners have told me that the lane closure [and shift towards business in the street] is what’s keeping them in business right now,” Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 told the News in an interview. “Dozens of people they employ haven’t lost their jobs.”

Brennan’s petition garnered 1,273 signatures. Together, Brennan, Sabin and other restaurant owners set up a Zoom meeting with the New Haven Economic Development team to make the plan a reality. After some concerns were raised and addressed in the meeting, all parties agreed on a compromise to close only one lane of traffic.

Part of the road on College Street that was once used for cars is now reserved for pedestrians, which is denoted by rainbow-colored paint. All that remains for cars is a solitary lane on the left, set off by traffic cones. 

Since the original College Street expansion, other streets such as Orange Street, in the area between Center and George streets, have expanded outdoor dining as well. The Orange Street expansion in particular was backed by Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94 and Ward 6 Alder Carmen Rodriguez, who co-wrote a letter supporting the expansion. 

In an interview with the News, Roth said that her constituents “love the repurposing of the space and helping to support local businesses and nonprofits during what has been such a difficult time for them economically.” She has heard no concerns regarding increased road traffic in the area from her constituents.

Roth also pointed out that the initiative has been bolstered by popular community events. Last Friday, CT Against Brutality and Artspace New Haven co-hosted a Black artist expo on Orange Street, which featured art sales, spoken word and a business fair.

Additionally, the city’s Summer Saturday campaign has successfully helped businesses fill their new outdoor seating. Every Saturday in August, New Haven enticed residents to visit downtown businesses with parking discounts, meal deals, outdoor entertainment and family-friendly activities.

Business owners have relished in the new foot traffic downtown as a result of these community events and the outdoor seating project. 

Matt Loter, owner of Elm City Games on Orange Street, said that the block closure has been a welcomed and highly anticipated change. He has noticed increased foot traffic on the street and noted that “the fact that there is so much room to safely distance has been great for creating a space where people can come out but still feel safe.” 

He believes that the initiative’s success and the popularity of similar projects in other cities, like New York, warrant its continuation and expansion in downtown. 

However, the project is a far from perfect solution for restaurant owners and workers. 

In an interview with the New Haven Independent, Pat Williams, the general manager of Elm City Social’s bar, said that rainy days still concern local restaurants with outdoor seating. Cesar Poma Rodriguez, a server at South Bay, also told the Independent that rainy days can slow down business but added that intense summer heat has not done the same.

Some restaurants with expanded outdoor seating still have had indoor seating options available. Connecticut reopened indoor dining in June. 

Restaurant owners, neighborhood stakeholders and the city’s Economic Development team are expected to make a decision on extending lane closures further into the fall sometime this week.

Connecticut began Phase Two reopening on June 17.