WINCHESTER — City officials say they are willing to bend the rules to help Winchester restaurants survive the financial crisis brought on by the coronavirus.
Winchester Development Services Director Shawn Hershberger told City Council on Tuesday that his office is allowing dining establishments to bend some city ordinances to survive restrictions that forced many of them to temporarily close or dramatically reduce operations to limit the spread of COVID-19.
For example, Hershberger said, the city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) is not currently interested in policing certain zoning and permit violations, such as the placement of temporary signs outside of restaurants and the sale of fresh meat and produce from kitchen stockpiles.
He also said restaurants that cannot offer indoor dining due to COVID-19 concerns can request permission from his office to create outdoor seating areas in nontraditional spaces such as parking lots.
Permits are required, but officials have been granting permission even in cases where the outdoor seating areas are taking up parking spaces that are required under City Code.
Council members said they support bending the rules if it helps city restaurants.
“I’d rather see us save them now than see them close,” Councilor Les Veach said.
Hershberger and the EDA are now proposing an additional measure designed to bring more diners downtown: Temporary closures of the two-block portion of Boscawen Street that intersects with the middle of the Loudoun Street Mall.
Closing the street, Hershberger said, would allow restaurants on Boscawen to set up dining areas in front of their establishments where customers could relax and enjoy a meal instead of having to take their food home.
“I’m in favor of getting this done tonight,” Councilor Corey Sullivan said.
But council member Judy McKiernan expressed reservations about the possibility of serving alcohol to downtown diners who are seated outside on Boscawen Street, which requires a special permit.
“My overarching concern is maintaining a family atmosphere,” McKiernan said.
“I think it’s a good and sound proposal,” Mayor David Smith said. “Nothing is perfect.”
Smith owns two downtown restaurants, Village Square Restaurant and Water Street Kitchen, both of which already have outdoor seating areas on the Loudoun Street Mall.
“These are difficult times and we need to do as much as we possibly can for these businesses,” Smith said.
Hershberger suggested closing the two-block section of Boscawen only on weekends, starting at 5 p.m. Fridays, to minimize any negative impacts on retail businesses along that stretch of street, including Bluebells florist and MakeNest interior design gallery.
Before any street closures begin, Hershberger said he will meet with those businesses to address their concerns.
The temporary Boscawen Street closures can be instituted immediately without City Council’s directive, but the panel would have to take action if it wants to allow the serving of alcohol in outdoor settings there. Hershberger said he’ll return in a few weeks to see if council is interested in allowing adult beverages outside on that section of Boscawen. Restaurants on the Loudoun Street Mall that serve alcohol outdoors have a special permit.
No start date for the Boscawen closures was announced on Tuesday, but most council members said they’re eager to see it happen to bolster downtown restaurants.
“We’ve got all the tools in place to do it,” Sullivan said. “Let’s roll.”