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What happens when a city's downtown reopens? Olympia is finding out

Pedestrians walk past the Legislative Building as trees bloom, April 23, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Pedestrians walk past the Legislative Building as trees bloom, April 23, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.

What does it look like when a city's downtown reopens after weeks of lying dormant?

Washington's capital, Olympia, is among the first and largest cities in the Puget Sound region to find out — and officials say the city's business district will operate differently. 

On Wednesday, state officials approved Thurston County's application to enter Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee four-phase "Safe Start" reopening plan. That means Olympia's shops and restaurants can once again open their doors to customers, with restrictions, such as limited capacity at restaurants meant to limit transmission of the coronavirus.

"I feel a pretty high degree of confidence in my community, that we'll be able to do this and model how openings can occur for small downtowns," said Mike Reid, the city's economic development director. 

Reid said he thinks officials in other cities, and with the state, will be watching to see how successful Olympia is at reopening. 

He said city officials and business owners have collaborated on ideas to help businesses reopen while limiting disease transmission. 

Among them: Olympia is making it easier for restaurants to open or expand outdoor dining on sidewalks. Reid said that can help restaurants spread customers out while dining establishments are limited to 50 percent capacity in Phase 2.

"I think there's still a portion of the population that feels a little bit more comfortable outdoors in an open-air environment," he said. "And you may even have some restaurants that are more comfortable with their customers outside." 

Restaurants also must seat no more than five people at a table, and bar seating is not allowed, during Phase 2.

Reid said outdoor dining usually requires a restaurant to block off part of the sidewalk with a barrier, but right now an establishment can simply mark off the dining area on the ground. 

He said the city also may close some streets to vehicle traffic on busy weekends to give pedestrians more space to move around.

On Wednesday, Thurston County's health officer directed residents to wear face coverings in public. Similar to other counties, the directive applies in indoor settings, such as grocery stores, and outdoors when staying 6 feet away from other people isn't possible.

"With our approval to begin Phase 2 of Safe Start Recovery, it’s more important than ever that people be cautious, responsible, and considerate of others. We want to continue moving forward as a county," the health officer, Dr. Diana Yu, said in a news release. "Without extra caution, we risk back-sliding."

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Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.