One of the biggest challenges facing Southern Vermont's recovering economy is how to bring business back to downtowns, especially restaurants.
The economic formula for restaurants is filing the dining room and selling as many meals as possible. The formula for stemming the spread of COVID-19, until there's a cure or a vaccine, is social distancing. Those don't mix.
So how can restaurants, which were allowed to start outdoor dining on Friday, serve enough customers to survive without unsafely cramming people into a dining room?
By taking the dining room out into the street.
In communities such as Warrenton, Va., Tampa, Fla., and Portland, Maine, restaurants are creating open-air dining rooms in streets, sidewalks and parking lots.
Manchester is going to give something similar a try. The Manchester Select Board has voted to authorize businesses in the town of Manchester — that is, not businesses not governed by the separate Manchester Village zoning ordinance — to use their outdoor parking spaces for business and relocate seating from inside areas to outside areas through Nov. 15, as long as certain conditions are met.
A restaurant permitted for 80 seats and 20 permitted parking spaces, for example, would be permitted to 40 seats outside into up to 10 parking spaces and/or adjacent courtyards and patios.
But why stop at the sidewalk? Why not close streets, too? As long as public health and safety are protected and the weather is nice, it's a compelling idea.
One of the side effects of this pandemic has been the way it has changed the way we use automobiles in our car-crazy country. We're using the self-contained nature of cars to improvise replacements for gatherings and celebrations. But we're driving far less, despite the plunge in gasoline prices. Carbon emissions in 2020 are expected to decrease 11 percent in the United States alone, according to the Energy Information Administration's May short-term energy outlook. The agency also expects emissions will climb by 5 percent in 2021 as the economy reopens, so the more we can do to encourage less exhaust, the better.
Taking cars out of our downtowns reduces exhaust and noise. And anyone who's been to Quincy Market in Boston, or Church Street in Burlington, knows there's a certain charm to pedestrian-only streetscapes. Granted, the cars have to go somewhere. But a hub and spoke system of parking lots and electric or low-emissions buses could easily distribute visitors from their cars to downtown streets.
Imagine Bennington's Four Corners or Main Street in Brattleboro alive with people, breathable air and instead of a steady stream of cars, trucks and motorcycles belching exhaust, people enjoying delicious-smelling local food.
It's worth trying.