San Francisco merchants battered by the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be able to apply for free, fast-tracked permits to use portions of outdoor public spaces — sidewalks, streets, parks and plazas — for business activities.
The new “Shared Spaces Program” represents the latest city initiative to support a gradual increase of economic activity while balancing mandates around social distancing, which remains crucial for stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus. Social distancing mandates will likely remain in effect until a vaccine is developed, city officials said.
The program is also the first effort born from the city’s COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force. Individual business owners and merchant groups should be able to apply for shared-spaces permits beginning in mid-June. After obtaining a permit, businesses will be responsible for maintaining safe travel paths and compliance with arrangements for people with disabilities.
The program “is a creative solution that will give our businesses more space to operate safely, and shift some of our street and sidewalk space to protect the economic and physical health of our entire community,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement.
By giving business easier access to portions of public rights-of-way, city officials hope to create more room for restaurant take-out pickups, curbside retail and other business activity allowed under the city’s current health order.
This month, San Francisco allowed most retailers in the city to reopen for curbside pickup and sales, though shoppers are still not permitted inside the stores themselves and all transactions must be completed outdoors.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin said in a statement that he intended to use his legislative authority to “waive additional fees that present unnecessary barriers to entry for small businesses on the brink.”
The program also lays the groundwork for expanded outdoor dining at restaurants, once health officials give the all-clear for eateries to begin offering that option. Currently, restaurants are still only able to fulfill take-out orders.
City officials were also open about the possibility that the Shared Spaces Program could open up a “broader repurposing” of San Francisco’s travel lanes, and even entire streets, in service of residents and businesses during the pandemic and the attendant mandates to shelter-in-place. In some cases, that could mean restaurants would be able to serve food on closed-down streets.
Because of their potential impact on public transit, such proposals will be considered on a case-by-case basis, city officials said.
The prolonged directives to shelter-in-place have forced cities to re-evaluate their approaches for utilizing public spaces to accommodate safe recreation and spur economic activity. Both San Francisco and Oakland have shut down streets to most vehicle traffic to give people more space to walk and bike outdoors while maintaining distance from one another.
“Our COVID-19 response challenges us to reimagine and repurpose how we use our streets to either accommodate curbside pickup or room for social distancing,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
“We are thrilled to support Shared Spaces, a broader repurposing of travel lanes or entire streets to support our small business community,” he said.