Newarkers who missed last month’s Welcome Back to Main Street event will have at least three more opportunities this summer to dine al fresco on a traffic-free Main Street.
Citing the success of the June 25 event, city council approved more outdoor dining events in order to help the business community that has been hit hard first by Main Street construction and then by the pandemic. Shutting down the road for an evening creates a pedestrian mall and allows restaurants to expand their outdoor seating, which experts say is much safer than dining indoors.
The exact dates have not yet been announced, but the events will be held biweekly on Wednesday or Thursday evenings through the end of August. Depending on their success and the city’s coronavirus numbers, they may be extended into September as well.
“It really showcases what we have on Main Street,” Councilwoman Sharon Hughes said. “It gives the businesses, that we care about and that are critical to the small town feel of our unique city, exposure.”
When the idea was first discussed earlier this summer, officials originally proposed shutting down Main Street every weekend. However, they got pushback from restaurants who said it would affect their take-out business, which is strong on weekends. Businesses suggested doing it on weeknights, when it’s harder for them to attract customers.
Newark piloted the event June 25, pairing it with a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the end of the construction project. Hundreds of people came downtown, and nearly every restaurant reported success.
“Feedback from restaurants who participated was overwhelmingly positive,” City Manger Tom Coleman said. “I heard several times that this was their busiest night since the start of the pandemic, with wait times approaching an hour for some.”
The event cost the city approximately $8,200 in staff overtime, police protection and other expenses, though Coleman said the cost will be less for future events. Going forward, the city will charge for parking during the events, which will bring in some revenue, he added.
The only opposition to holding more events came from Councilwoman Jen Wallace, who argued it’s not safe because of the pandemic.
“I think we jumped the gun in regards to reopening our city and our businesses and planning public events to try to draw people in,” Wallace said. “I understand the very real financial concerns of our businesses. I also understand the feeling that everyone wants to get out of their house and for things to go back to normal. But things are not back to normal. This is a very serious illness.”
She said the city is “hypocritical” for planning public events while at the same time considering an ordinance to limit private gatherings to 10 people in an attempt to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
“That’s a conflicting message as far as I’m concerned,” she said.
However, Mayor Jerry Clifton said eating outdoors is much safer than eating indoors and noted that most people he saw at last month’s event stayed within their family group and generally practiced social distancing.
He said that, even when the pandemic is over, he hopes the outdoor dining events become a summertime tradition in Newark.