MARTINEZ (CBS SF) — To give downtown restaurateurs and merchants more room to stretch out in this social distancing era, the Martinez City Council on Wednesday night called for closing Main Street in the downtown area on weekends, allowing streets and sidewalks to become open-air extensions of stores and restaurants.

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The closure, which begins this weekend, is designed to allow merchants and restaurants with small spaces — that is, most of them — to show some of their wares outside as restrictions on their operations ease up, and to expand outside dining beyond the “flex-space” parking spaces for which they already pay a premium.

“We need to give these small restaurants a chance to really spread out,” Councilwoman Noralea Gipner said. 

The council also directed city staff to set aside more downtown parking spots for curbside pickup of to-go meals.

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The prospect of more space — outdoor space — between themselves and other customers could prove attractive to shoppers and diners, even after social distancing requirements are relaxed. Live local music, recreation and kids’ activities could all be part of the mix, according to a city report.

These were among a number of items included in a city staff report outlining a COVID-19 “Small Business Economic Recovery Plan.”

A number of other Bay Area cities have either enacted or are considering similar street closures. Berkeley and San Francisco are discussing using vacant outside space around restaurants to expand their capacities, as have the cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Livermore, Los Altos, Redwood City, San Carlos and San Mateo.

Julie Johnston of the Martinez Chamber of Commerce said her office plans to set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for “micro loans” to small businesses that have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On a similar tack, Kara Klotchman of Main Street Martinez, a non-profit advocate for downtown businesses, suggested a GoFundMe campaign to make improvements that would benefit the business community as a whole.

Wednesday afternoon, several downtown Martinez merchants said they liked the basic Economic Recovery Plan ideas put forth by the city.

“We are all for anything that allows people to frequent downtown once again,” said Rachel Ruhe, owner of Homage, a pizza and dessert restaurant that, since the shelter-in-place orders were first enacted, switched to home delivery and pickup of pre-orders exclusively. That doesn’t mean, she said, that a more vibrant downtown won’t matter to her business.

“When one business does well we all do well, because it increases the foot traffic,” Ruhe said.

Ryan Geiser, owner of Taco Daddy’s restaurant, praised the idea of closed streets and open-air retailers as “wonderful,” even if keeping kids socially distanced could be problematic.

“If it is made comfortable for people, it will lead to people coming back downtown on a regular basis,” Geiser said.

He also expects the reopening of the county’s Superior Court next week will likely bring more businesses to downtown restaurants.

A different view was offered by Fred Morse, owner of AtticChild, a rare and antique furniture store. He said 80 percent of his business is done over the Internet, and street closures would do more harm than good.

“You block off the streets, you’re just taking away traffic from the stores,” Morse said.

Also discussed Wednesday was the possibility that the downtown plaza along Alhambra Creek could host open-air stage productions, with limited crowd sizes. With the nearby Campbell Theater closed, the OnStage Theatre Company based there has been idled. Mark Hinds, OnStage’s managing director, told Mayor Rob Schroder Wednesday night he was all for it.

“We’ve got improv, we’ve got stand-up, and there’s natural distancing,” said Hinds, who noted that executing good lighting might be the biggest challenge at the plaza.

Corey Katz, owner of the Bar Cava wine bar in Martinez’s downtown, urged local government to move more quickly, and more effectively, to help small businesses than federal agencies have been able to do. He said his business, and likely others, may not survive another six months without help of any and all kinds.

“We’re looking to you folks to help us out,” Katz told the council. 

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