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Ann Arbor street closures will give businesses more outdoor space during COVID-19 pandemic

Downtown Ann Arbor
Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio
Ann Arbor City Council approved possible traffic shutdowns in four sections of the city's downtown. The closures would be in the afternoon and evening on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for most of the summer.

Starting Monday, Michigan’s restaurants and bars can reopen to dine-in customers at half capacity. Business districts have welcomed the news, but as customers return, there are also concerns about spreading COVID-19.

Traverse City recently voted to close two blocks downtown to vehicle traffic to allow for more outdoor seating. And last week, the Ann Arbor City Council passed its own plan for some downtown streets.

The plan

The Ann Arbor measure authorizes possible street closures in four areas. One along Main Street, another near the city's farmer's market, and two sections of the downtown near the University of Michigan's central campus. The streets would be closed during afternoon and evening hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between June 12 and August 23. 

In an interview with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said businesses in those areas will have the option "to put up tables on the sidewalk [and] put up tables in what previously had been parking spaces." 

But Taylor said there are still decisions to be made on timing.

"Which streets actually get closed, when they get closed is a matter that will be decided by the Downtown Development Authority, the various area merchant associations, the city of Ann Arbor, and, of course, in close and conclusive consultation with the local businesses," Taylor said.

"We've spent a lot of time - and had a lot of success - with 'stay home, stay safe.' And moving off of that, it's complicated." - Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor

Pushback from some businesses

Earlier in the pandemic, the city had repurposed some parking spaces in front of restaurants to serve as contact-free pickup areas for takeout meals. Taylor said some of those businesses are concerned about losing sales if people can't just pull up in front of their doors. 

"That's why it's going to be very important ... that we consult with the local businesses, that we consult with people on a block-by-block basis, and that we listen," Taylor said. "If folks on a particular block don't want their street closed, street's not going to be closed."

Spacing issues beyond downtown

Outside of downtowns and business districts, some communities across the state are seeing changes on their streets and sidewalks. People are moving into the gutters or out into the roadways to avoid other people walking or running on the sidewalks.  

Ann Arbor residents can submit requests for road closures through the city's Healthy Streets program.

"We need, of course, to permit transit. We need, of course, to permit emergency vehicle access. But we do understand that people are moving around differently and that the streets are for everybody. They're not just for cars," Taylor said. "We want to make sure that we are we're able to use the right of way in a manner that's best for everyone."

A personal decision

During the pandemic, Taylor said he has been in public downtown when his role as mayor required it. He supports the plan to close streets and increase outdoor capacity, but he's not quite ready to spend time at the city's shops and restaurants. 

"I'm a fairly risk-averse person and it's going to take me a little time," he said. 

He has advice for people who are torn about going back to their favorite businesses and conerns about COVID-19.

"Scout the location. Look to see how the tables are organized. Look to see how the people are behaving and then reflect upon their own sense of risk-reward. And then make their own decision," Taylor said.

"It's a hard one. We've spent a lot of time and had a lot of success with 'stay home, stay safe.' And moving off of that, it's complicated."

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length. You can hear the complete interview at the top of this page. 

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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