Morgantown’s past plans to shut down High Street were stymied by the state, so why is the city saying “no” now?
This is the first part of a multi-part series examining the need to increase outdoor space for businesses.
On Friday, August 28, Interim City Manager Emily Muzzarelli received an email from the Office of the Governor with a proposal: to close High Street Friday and Saturday nights so bars could expand their outdoor capacity. The proposal was part of Governor Justice’s coronavirus comeback plan, intended to help hurting businesses like bars increase their revenue. But on Monday, August 31, the day bars reopened in Morgantown, Muzzarelli responded to the governor’s office declining the proposal.
Morgantown’s past hopes of shutting down High Street were stymied by the state government—so why is the city saying “no” now?
Here’s the rub. That proposal? Effective for the weekend of September 4, just one week after it had been brought to the city.
“Not only were we concerned for health and safety reasons; there were also issues of logistics—trying to get this organized and getting the resources in place to actually facilitate this within the time frame,” says Mayor Ron Dulaney.
City administration sought input from City Council, the police and fire departments, the Parking Authority, the county commission, retailers’ groups, and others. “The general consensus,” says Muzzarelli, “was that it was going to be extremely difficult to do it safely. While everyone is eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, we all need to be cautious and realistic as we move forward.”
There are the obvious concerns. How would it work? Bars, largely responsible for the mid-July spike in COVID cases, were expected to hold themselves accountable for their outdoor expansion under the governor’s proposal. Yet, seven bar-restaurants visited last weekend by the state Alcohol and Beverage Commission were issued citations for violating COVID-19 guidelines, including a lack of social distancing and not requiring face coverings. And then on Tuesday, hundreds of unmasked students crowded Forest Avenue outside of Fat Daddy’s Bar and Grill. As a result, on Wednesday, the governor shut down bars in Monongalia County indefinitely.
It’s clear that Monongalia County needs to change course. John P. Kuehn of Spencer & Kuehn Fine Jewelry Studio is in favor of a totally pedestrian downtown, although he wasn’t optimistic about the governor’s sudden proposal. It could wreck the future of extending outdoor dining if it didn’t turn out well, he says.
In July, with careful planning, Charleston shut down blocks of Capitol and Hale streets to allow room for outdoor dining. Community-based efforts to close High Street in Morgantown, however, have been met with resistance from the state Division of Highways (DOH), says Charlie McEwuen, owner of Tanner’s Alley, who, in years past, was part of a Main Street Morgantown initiative to hold festivals on Fridays before West Virginia University home football games.
“One of the frustrating things about this experience was that suddenly, all the resources were there and there were no barriers,” Dulaney says. “This shows that the DOH is certainly capable of doing it with enough political will from Charleston.”
While it might be too late for Monongalia County bars, there’s still time to refocus efforts on creating more outdoor parklets for Morgantown restaurants. Who will lead the charge?