September 2, 2020
The hospitality sector is hurting. Physical distancing means that restaurants, cafes and bars cannot operate as normal. Between 235,000 and 320,000 jobs will be lost by March 2021.
A second lockdown would likely be catastrophic to the sector. But at the same time, these businesses are risky locations for the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants, bars and cafes make up 7 of the 12 clusters where transmission occurred in NSW since July.
Unlike other sectors that face a shaky long-term future, we are confident that the post-COVID demand for the hospitality sector will be strong. But to bridge to that future, can we find a way to allow people to enjoy going out safely while minimising the chance of spreading the virus? One of the best ways to resolve this dilemma is to shift bars, restaurants, and cafes, outdoors.
There is now strong evidence that the transmission rates of COVID are greatly reduced when people are outdoors. Shifting as much of social life outdoors as possible, when coupled with other measures, is a pragmatic way to minimise risk while maximising benefits.
We are now on the cusp of warmer weather – we should trial moving bars and restaurants outdoors for the next 6 months.
Toward a new culture of outdoor dining
In New York City, where indoor dining is banned, venues have taken over great swathes of sidewalks for temporary outdoor dining.
London’s famous Soho district has pedestrianised the neighbourhood and reclaimed outdoor streets for furniture and other activations.
San Francisco is welcoming restaurants to take over parking spaces with little formal infrastructure.
Done right, we have an opportunity to build a new culture of outdoor dining across Sydney.
Many LGAs in Sydney are already encouraging “sidewalk cafes” by waiving permit fees as a temporary measure during COVID. But as things stand today, most restaurants cannot access outdoor dining for a simple reason: the footpaths are too narrow and the streets are too traffic-dominated.
In the short run, there are two basic ways to move restaurants, cafes, and bars outdoors:
Temporary street closures for public life
Some of the most dramatic examples of cities looking for hidden opportunities in the pandemic are the conversions of complete streets into outdoor dining.
Dyckman St, New York
Here in Sydney, Kensington Street and part of George Street in The Rocks have been pedestrianised on a temporary basis to create more space for people. Restaurants, cafes, and really any small retail business can set up dining or market stalls, bringing life and economic vitality.
We think there is potential for a lot more of this.
Currently, even temporarily closing a street is an arduous process. Even with a local council supportive, Transport for NSW requires assurances that:
Each element may be sensible in isolation, but results in any closures becoming snarled in red tape.
To change this requires a collective effort. The recent Streets as Shared Spaces grants program shows that where local and state government works together, the barriers can be overcome. Two things are required: Leadership and a repeatable process.
State and Local government leaders should direct their teams to collaborate to roll out street closures this spring, and replicate this across Sydney, leading to a more efficient, less bureaucratic process.
Parklets as outdoor dining space
The word for converting a parking space into a public open space is “parklet“. There are now thousands of these in cities all over the world.
In many cases, parklets are designed to fairly strong engineering standards and are semi-permanent. But for purposes of economic recovery from COVID in the short run, quick and cheap parking space closures are just as good: planters, moveable fences, tables, and chairs.
While it’s technically possible to roll this out under existing policy, the lack of parklets in Sydney speaks to the unfeasible level of licencing and bureaucracy required to allow it.
In general, we think the presumption should be this: that every retail business has the right to take over the parking space in front of it – with obvious exceptions like bus stops, loading zones and disabled parking.
Local and State government would handle the licencing of spaces and ensuring it meets safety and community standards are met. This can most simply be done through adapting the existing NSW Outdoor Dining Guide developed by the Small Business Commissioner. This pre-existing process would ensure that a single application from a business to Service NSW would allow them to:
Businesses should be responsible for installing and maintaining the parklet; Government needs to provide permission, not funding.
There are two further measures that are necessary to create the right enabling environment: calming the streets and adjusting the regulations around alcohol.
Calming the streets
Some streets are inhospitable to public life of any kind – traffic is too fast to make for a comfortable seating experience or clearways remove parking altogether.
For this reason, to truly create the opportunity for thousands of small businesses to move their service outdoors requires the leadership of Transport for NSW.
Transport should immediately change the speed limit to 30 km/h on all high streets. This is a longstanding recommendation of the Committee for Sydney and global best practice. It is now urgent to implement it quickly as a way to enable high street economic recovery from the COVID lockdown.
Next, Transport should greatly reduce the number of clearways on the high streets. Clearways place fast moving traffic immediately next to the footpath and create a very uncomfortable environment for people on foot – and they also make it impossible to install parklets. While bus only lanes are important parts of transport networks they do not work in places where the goal is to create a successful high street.
We should accept a slightly longer trip time for certain journeys as the necessary trade-off to support the more far-reaching success of neighbourhood high streets as centres of community life and economic activity. Returning these lanes to parking would provide an immediate boost to local retail and hospitality.
Adjusting alcohol regulations
A final topic: restrictions on drinking alcohol outside are sometimes necessary, but we think there needs to be some flexibility in the current environment. We should make it easier for people to have a drink outside – a sight that is commonplace all over the world.
We would propose that Liquor and Gaming NSW still control regulation and enforcement, but that the default position should be that a venue can serve alcohol outside if it has already been permitted to serve alcohol inside.
The UK has changed liquor licences to allow restaurants to sell take-away alcohol in response to COVID and there’s no reason why we couldn’t do the same in Sydney – allowing people who pick up a take-away meal to also get a bottle of wine.
Sydney, with its beautiful streets and benign climate has the opportunity to shift a great portion of the experience economy outside, where rates of COVID transmission would be much reduced. We recognise that this will still not be enough to save many of our cherished establishments, but it could help some of them.
As the weather gets warmer in Sydney, we call on councils and state government to work with local businesses to temporarily close certain streets and to roll out parklets across the city. The structures are temporary, so can always be turned back, but they would offer crucial space for hospitality providers to operate during a period of physical distancing