BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) – Cars won’t be found Corning’s Market Street this summer. Instead, seating for restaurants and bars spills off the sidewalk and onto the road. With the extra space, tables can be kept six feet apart and pedestrians can roam the downtown.
Corning closed the main shopping street in its downtown Gaffer District to cars earlier this month. It’s one of several New York cities rethinking its streets in response to COVID-19.
According to Coleen Fabrizi, the executive director of the Gaffer District, cities around the world are facing the same challenges when it comes to reopening. They are all looking for ways to help businesses safely welcome back customers without promoting the spread of COVID-19.
“We were all facing the fact that when we reopen, we have to figure out how to social distance in one of the most intimate settings there is: taking care of a customer,” Fabrizi said.
Corning’s city council voted to close the street to cars and reallocate space to businesses in early June. Effective just a few days later, four blocks of Market Street are now friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Other New York cities like Rochester and Ithaca have taken similar steps.
Since the start of the pandemic, open street programs have cropped up around the U.S. They give residents space to walk, bike and shop while maintaining the social distancing guidelines.
Tab Combs is a transportation planning and policy scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since the start of the pandemic, she has compiled a list of the ways cities and towns are redesigning their streets in response to COVID-19.
“There’s never been, to my knowledge, a global trigger like there is now, where cities all across the world have been interested in doing this all at the same time,” Combs said.
According to Combs, investments in sidewalks and bicycle facilities in cities tend to have more of a pay off from an economic development standpoint.
“Increasing foot traffic is a boon to local businesses,” Combs said.
Restaurants in the Southern Tier can now open their indoor dining rooms at half capacity, but such restricted capacity may make it hard for smaller businesses to break even. Bar owner Dan Wilcox said the added outdoor space on Market Street makes a big difference when making ends meet.
“Businesses like mine weren’t going to survive at a 50 percent occupancy,” Wilcox said. “So their solution was let’s get them out on the street, give them a little extra occupancy, and hopefully we can get them through this until we can kind of get back to normal.”
The street closure may help draw visitors to Corning. Summer tourism from the Finger Lakes is important to the city’s businesses. According to Wilcox, tourists make it possible for his small bar to survive season to season.
“I think it’s important to this city, for our businesses to survive this,” Wilcox said. “I don’t think people realize just how dire our situation really is.”
Fabrizi said residents are still cautious about coming out, but compared to a few months ago, Market Street fills up during the lunch and dinner rush. Not as many people, however, have come back to shop.
“Retail is still hurting,” Fabrizi said. “With the way things have been, they can’t really bring on extra staff to watch out front and inside, so they’re just trying to figure out how to do that and be successful.”
According to Fabrizi, the city council might vote to extend the street closure through the end of summer. For now, it will remain open to pedestrians through August 1.