Reopening Retail Districts Safely

States and local jurisdictions across the country face imminent, although ever-changing, planned reopening dates.

Regardless of where your state stands, business will not resume as usual. Communities need to gear up for continued social distancing to prevent coronavirus transmission and take steps to support long-term property stabilization.

To date, independent retailers struggle to receive federal financial aid needed to prevent them from closing their doors forever. This situation — particularly for underserved communities of color hit hardest by COVID-19 — underscores why planners need to help design systems now that work for at-risk entrepreneurs and the customers they serve.

Looking beyond steps that planners can take now, it is time to design safe conditions for retailer and customer reentry. &Access offers a guidebook to help businesses reopen safely; below are some of the suggestions that planners can help implement.

Step 1: Establish and Communicate Reopening Protocols

Begin communicating with your local public health officials to develop and communicate reopening protocols, including occupancy guidelines, required permits or testing, and other essential information needed to ensure a safe environment.

Additionally, local governments are home to a wealth of underused business data.

Pull out business registrations to contact retailers and restaurateurs, sharing that the decision to reopen is up to public health officials, lease terms, and ultimately, them.

Owners must understand their responsibility in maintaining a safe environment.

Maintain a database of businesses opened and closed (temporarily or permanently). Contact all companies regularly to update their status and share resources as they become available.

Step 2: Create a Safe Right-of-Way

The six-foot social distancing protocol is difficult or impossible for retailers with smaller footprints to maintain, as witnessed at currently open essential businesses. Before states roll back stay-at-home protocols, it is important that planners and others at the local level revisit and amend retail district parking and sidewalk rules to encourage safe practices.

Support efforts already being made by business owners to designate safe social distancing zones outside of retail establishments by creating guidance for signs and uniform marking systems.

Owners can mark lanes on sidewalks for walking and queueing using washable sidewalk spray paint, duct tape, and traffic cones. If your community's sidewalks are not wide enough, planners may be able to support safe mobility and queueing practices by marking off a portion of the street as usable public space.

A slow reopening of different kinds of spaces allows public health officials to monitor the impact of increased socializing. At first, communities may restrict the use of outdoor patio spaces for gathering and seating. Instead, retailers may use these areas as queueing spaces. As restrictions ease, look into how retailers may be able to use both private and public spaces temporarily for business activity and safe queueing.

For example, Tampa, Florida, has created a restaurant and retail recovery program that includes allowing businesses to expand into private outdoor areas, parking lots, public rights-of-way, and parklets.

Consider requiring on-street parking spaces for contactless curbside delivery, but only if another parking strategy exists for customers needing to exit their vehicles. Contact nearby parking lot owners to arrange a shared free or reduced-cost solution.

Determine whether regulations should allow sidewalk A-frame signage. Although it serves as a clear indicator of business operations, it might clutter the sidewalks of dense retail environments, creating accessibility issues and pinch-points where social distancing guidelines falter.

Consider implementing a complementary signage program that leverages storefront windows and light poles to communicate business hours and reinforce public health guidelines.

Business owners with limited staff might struggle to maintain occupancy limits and could benefit from support monitoring store's entrances — an internship program similar to the “social distancing ambassadors" Seattle has hired to encourage compliance in city parks could serve these businesses.

Finally, planners have an opportunity to lead equitably by proactively communicating public space options with business owners, especially retailers in the hardest-hit areas and owners in districts that rarely take advantage of public space permitting processes.

Step 3: Continue to Provide Financial Support

Planning departments typically control limited public funding, but have a unique opportunity to leverage Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other federal funding sources like Economic Adjustment Grants to create cost savings for businesses in the coming years.

Potential solutions include reducing or eliminating permit and review fees and local sales and property taxes, or implementing a purchasing system that benefits small retail and restaurant businesses similar to construction procurement programs.

Top image: Shoppers wait in line to enter a Trader Joe's in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bobby Boone.

About the Author
Bobby Boone, AICP, is the founder and chief strategist at &Access, a consulting practice with a niche at the crossroads of retail real estate, entrepreneurship, and underserved communities. &Access is soliciting additional ideas and resources to sustain tenants over the long term and maintain the vibrancy of retail corridors.

May 11, 2020

By Bobby Boone, AICP