CATSKILL — Village trustees are discussing the idea of closing down Main Street this summer to support restaurants and shops affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal would give restaurants and retail stores outdoor space to provide services in a safe, social-distancing environment, Village President Vincent Seeley said.
Seeley proposed the closure to be 24/7 for the duration of the summer, or until businesses can open at full capacity. Other trustees are in favor of closing down Friday through Sunday.
“The idea is to create an open-air, social distancing, safe, clean environment for our residents and visitors to gather after being on lockdown for 12-plus weeks and benefiting our business district by providing the food traffic they need to make up for lost revenue and getting their staff back to work,” Seeley said.
Unemployment benefits are strained, Seeley said.
“The $600 people are getting as part of their unemployment check is going to dry up,” he said. “We have to get these people back to work.”
More than $10 billion in unemployment benefits had been paid to over 2 million New Yorkers as of May 20, according to the state Department of Labor. Those who do not qualify for traditional unemployment may apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
In New York, 562,766 applicants have received benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program as of May 20. Those who qualify are also eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, an additional $600 per week available to those receiving benefits through traditional unemployment and also through the PUA program, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which extends benefits for an additional 13 weeks for those receiving benefits if the initial 26 weeks have expired.
For the week ending May 9, 33 states reported 7,793,066 individuals claiming Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits and 22 states reported 222,300 individuals claiming Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Although capacity guidelines are not set, the economic feasibility for these businesses could be disastrous, Seeley said.
“You can’t run a business you geared up for 100% at 50%,” he said.
The six-foot social distancing requirement adds to the strain, Seeley said.
“The stores on Main Street, think about how small they are,” he said. “Six feet — that’s two people, tops.”
Laura Singer, owner of HiLo Cafe and Avalon Lounge agreed.
“The idea of trying to open safely and responsibly with only the available space of your restaurant is pretty daunting for any restaurant here rather than have an abundance of outdoor space,” Singer said. “We have to take advantage of summer months when we can congregate outside.”
Other municipalities such as Saratoga Springs have used street closures to stimulate their local economies, Seeley said.
Singer is in favor of the proposal, she said.
“We are in support of it while recognizing a lot of logistics need to be worked out,” she said. “It seems like for us one of the first glimmers of hope we’ve had in all this to operate more fully as a business and do it in a safe and responsible way.”
The proposal will allow restaurants, cafes and bars to have outdoor seating while leaving room for pedestrians to travel between retail stores and practice social distancing, Singer said.
In terms of traffic and parking concerns, Singer said many local residents can walk or bike to Main Street while arrangements can be made for parking on side streets for those less able to travel on foot.
The municipal lots would remain open.
Parking capacity could increasd if county employees used the parking lot at the Catskill school and were shuttled to the county office building, Seeley said.
Emergency vehicles would be able to get through, Seeley said.
“You’d pick up a 20-pound plastic barrier so emergency vehicles can get through,” Seeley said. “Now, if there’s 150 people on the street, what are we going to do with them? If we have 150 people, I will cry with happiness so my tears will put out the fire.”
Seeley said an emergency lane would be kept clear of structures such as tables and other vendor supplies in case of emergency.
Adjustments might have to be made for how businesses receive deliveries, Seeley said, such as using a hand truck when the delivery truck cannot park immediately outside the business.
If restrictions on the businesses’ capacities are lifted, the street could be easily reopened, Seeley said.
“Opening the street up is as easy as walking and picking up eight barriers and picking a few signs up,” he said.
Catskill Police Chief David Darling foresees issues with rerouting traffic and parking availability, he said in a statement:
“The problem with closing Main Street is very simple,” Darling said. “We have major infrastructure problems with diverting the traffic. Anything is possible and these obstacles could possibly be overcome. Water Street is one-way from Church to Main and split at the bottom level. The increased traffic on Water Street could cause major problems. Closure on Main Street would also result in the closure of William Street, Thompson Street, Cook Street and Church Street, not to mention all the alleyways on the west side of Main Street. All traffic from Main Street would be pushed to residential areas on Spring Street, West Main Street, New Street, North Street and very possibly Woodland, Prospect, Liberty and Greene Street. Parking would also become a major problem for anyone coming to Main Street to support our local businesses. We would lose 140 parking spots on the street. I could possibly leave the municipal lot open, but that would mean placing a police officer at that location full-time. It was mentioned this morning that other communities have closed streets successfully to promote business. These communities may have the infrastructure to support changing traffic patterns with very little effect on the community, unfortunately the village of Catskill does not have the ability to accomplish this without disrupting most of the people residing in this community. I have never supported the closure of Main Street and I urge the village trustees to research this issue, and I will support their decision.”
Trustee Natasha Law said the proposal is a work in progress.
“It was a thought that did not yet have a plan attached to it,” Law said. “As per usual information gets crossed and everyone freaks out. The conversation is good, though, and needs to be had. We have to do something. I have worked most of my life in the restaurant field and I completely understand that if the stipulations put forth by the governor say only 30 or even 50% capacity is allowed, there is no way these restaurants can afford the overhead.”
The street closure could provide these businesses some relief, Law said.
“Closing down the street would be able to allow them to serve more people while socially distancing,” she said. “I spent most of my day yesterday contacting business owners, those that live on Main Street and those that own up and coming buildings to get their thoughts on shutting down the traffic. It’s hard to come up with a plan about hypothetical guidelines but something has to be done. The community has worked really hard to bring it to where it is today. We can’t let our small businesses fail. Those businesses not directly on Main Street will be welcomed to join in the fun.”
Law thinks some limitations are needed, she said.
“Do I think the whole summer is a good idea? No,” she said. “Not after talking to the community. Do I think Friday-Sundays are feasible? Absolutely.”
Trying to clear the streets every Friday and open them again each Monday would be a nightmare, Seeley said.
“Completely closing the street is the only way to make a big splash, get noticed and set us up for a successful recovery,” he said. “A watered down version... It is not worth it to invest our time into something that won’t be useful and will not make big enough splash.”
Trustee Peter Grasse Jr. favors closing off parking on Main Street but keeping it open to traffic.
The added space between the sidewalks and the closed parking spaces would allow restaurants and other businesses to expand their services, Grasse said.
Grasse said he may be open to closing Main Street from Thompson Street down on weekends on a trial basis.
“Closing it for the summer off the bat definitely needs more discussion,” he said. “I think there would be too many people negatively affected. We have to think about the elderly and the handicapped, too. We have to have alternative routes. Where are people going to park or are people going to be transported in?”
Weather will also determine how successful the proposal is, Grasse said.
“Do people really want to sit outside if it’s 90 degrees or a storm is coming?” he said.
Trustee Joseph Kozloski declined to comment on the proposal until the board had a meeting on the matter Thursday night.
Seeley estimated that Main Street could be closed in two weeks time if the plan is put into motion.