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Brattleboro Closes Some Street Parking To Help Restaurants Through Pandemic

Artists install decoration on parklet in downtown Brattleboro
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Andrea Wasserman, left, and Evie Lovett install fabric art as part of Brattleboro's move to expand outdoor seating for restaurants during the pandemic.

Gov. Phil Scott is slowly re-opening the economy, and downtowns and business owners across the state are now working to encourage people to come back out after sheltering at home for three months.

In Brattleboro, the town is taking away some downtown parking spaces so restaurants can extend their outdoor seating. 

On a recent sunny afternoon in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont artist Andrea Wasserman was hunched over a 4,000-pound concrete barrier, drilling holes and pounding iron rods into the concrete.

Wasserman and her partner were installing colored fabric for the town’s new "parklets," which bump out areas in the street to create spaces where restaurants can serve people.

Even though we're all exhausted and drained with stress and anxiety, we are also being asked to be creative and resilient. And all of that takes every bit of energy we can muster." - Stephanie Bonin, Downtown Brattleboro Alliance

The long blue and white fabrics were made to look like flowing water.

“You know, we just hope that it uplifts the streetscape, really,” Wasserman said. “You know, just gives a little more life to people coming back on the street, and enjoying life and having some kind of social component to their life.”

More from VPR: Scott, Lawmakers Tussle Over COVID Relief For Vermont Businesses

This project is just one of the ways Brattleboro is attempting to change the way it does business, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic linger.

Downtown Brattleboro Alliance executive director Stephanie Bonin said her group is also supporting a project to install public hand sanitizing stations.

The stations are designed by local artists and include a recording of a local musician singing for twenty seconds; the amount of time you’re supposed to take to properly disinfect your hands.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
A skateboard-art inspired public hand sanitizer station has been set up along Main Street in Brattleboro.

“What this pandemic has done is it’s forced us to be innovative,” she said. “Even though we’re all exhausted and drained with stress and anxiety, we are also being asked to be creative and resilient. And all of that takes every bit of energy we can muster. And I think that the community is doing an incredible job of mustering that energy.”

Bonin is waiting for the state to releasefederal COVID-19 funds so she can hire additional musicians and artists for the two projects.

Brattleboro Town manager Peter Elwell said the town used about $30,000 from a revolving loan fund to purchase and install the concrete barriers for the restaurants.

More from VPR: Vermont Lawmakers Discuss Plans For COVID-19 Relief

“It’s nice to bring some activity out into the street in any occasion, and it’s especially important with COVID because of the hazards of indoor dining and other indoor activities,” said Elwell. “So the two things really just sort of fit together naturally to look at using this space in a way that would, you know, bring some life into that part of downtown, bring some recovery to the businesses. I think we all need that. Our economy needs it for sure and I think emotionally too for the community in these warm weather months it’ll be nice to have places where people can safely gather downtown.”

The slow reopening of Vermont’s economy has been especially hard for restaurants.

A national report recently found that 20%of the restaurants in the United States could close for good due to the pandemic.

Brattleboro is not the only town closing streets to help  restaurant owners weather the crisis.
Rutland and Burlington have taken similar steps.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Jason Lively owns the restaurant Duo in Brattleboro. Lively said that while the expanded outdoor seating helps, restaurants face many obstacles in surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even with the help, restaurant owners have a lot to think about.

In an industry with already slim margins, they now have to protect their workers and customers.

“If I was just wearing the hat '100% of business owner,' then yeah, I want the doors open, I want the place full, I want, you know, wine and beer pouring and food being served,” said Jason Lively, owner of Duo, a downtown restaurant that will be setting up tables in one of the parklets. “But as a person who has a family, and kids at home, and you know, a mom and sister, and nieces and nephews and friends in the community, I also really worry about what health and safety looks like. You know I feel like I land somewhere in the middle of, you know, wanting my business to thrive, but you know, not wanting to die doing it.”

More from VPR: Financial Picture Turns Bleak For Vermont Restaurants Idled By COVID-19

Lively said his curbside pickup has been surprisingly busy, and the local community has been supporting him through the pandemic so far.

But just how many people are willing to come back out to eat, inside or out, remains to be seen.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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