Beach block business owners say they were left out of the decision-making process, but Rehoboth Beach commissioners are sticking by their decision to erect barriers along the sidewalk sides of Rehoboth Avenue, at least through the end of July.
During a special commissioner meeting June 2, Mayor Paul Kuhns said the new walkways are great for social distancing, and with some signage they will be used better. There’s still more work to do, he said.
The meeting was the fourth special meeting focused on reopening the city in the face of COVID-19. During the third meeting May 26, commissioners voted to move forward with a pedestrian walkway on Rehoboth Avenue. The walkway was created by blocking off sidewalk-side parking spots, from Second Street to the Bandstand.
During the June 2 meeting, City Manager Sharon Lynn said staff mobilized resources almost immediately. She said 300 jersey barriers have been rented and 50 have been purchased to create the pathway. Installation began Friday and was done by Saturday afternoon, she said.
More pedestrian space is needed because the city is allowing restaurants to expand seating, using sidewalks. At the time of the meeting, Code Enforcement Officer Dennis Jeney said the city had received 30 applications from restaurants to use outdoor space; 23 of the applicants serve alcohol.
He said two have been denied – one because there was insufficient space to maintain accessibility requirements; one because the applicant is a hotel and didn’t meet the intent of the application.
The majority of the meeting was spent discussing if the right decision had been made.
Commissioner Lisa Schlosser said the decision all along was to create a safe walking space that allows for social distancing and for businesses to take advantage of sidewalk use. This is about the good of the many, not just the few, she said.
Recognizing not all businesses were contacted, Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski said he went out of his way to contact as many business owners as possible. Facebook kicked him off his page because it thought he was sending out spam, he said, as an example of how many businesses he tried to contact.
Chrzanowski said moving forward, the city needs to market itself as the summer resort where people can summer safely.
This was not a knee-jerk reaction and something creative needed to be done, said Commissioner Steve Scheffer.
Commissioner Pat Coluzzi said now is the time for the city to push use of the city hall parking lot. It’s not being used like it should be, she said.
Commissioner Susan Gay said the first real test of the barriers will be this weekend, because restrictions weren’t lifted until June 1.
Piggybacking off Gay’s comments, Chrzanowski said this weekend will be the first that hotels are taking reservations. This weekend, the city will start to see more people in town, he said.
During the meeting, Lynn asked the commissioners to decide if businesses facing the Boardwalk would be allowed to expand onto the Boardwalk. She said she was not in favor of the idea, but wanted the commissioners to make the decision.
Commissioners decided the Boardwalk had too many obstructions and there is no available space to use, like the parking spaces on Rehoboth Avenue.
It’s not like the city can use the dune, said Gay.
Restaurants on First and Second streets have also asked for expanded seating, but those streets and sidewalks are much narrower than Rehoboth, Baltimore or Wilmington.
Chief Keith Banks said it’s his opinion barriers could not be installed with enough space for seating on the sidewalk and with pedestrians a safe distance away. Also, he said, the curb is steep along those sidewalks, and creating ramps would be difficult.
Ultimately, commissioners tasked Jeney with going to restaurants on First and Second streets interested in having outdoor seating to see if something could be worked out and to report back to the commissioners during next week’s special reopening meeting, scheduled for 3 p.m., Tuesday, June 9.
First-block businesses react to barricades
Commissioners say the barricades were installed to allow for social distancing in areas of Rehoboth with the most pedestrians. A few days into the installment, Lynn said the new walkway was being used very little by pedestrians.
The lack of activity hasn’t gone unnoticed by business owners on the first block of Rehoboth Avenue.
Carlton’s owner Trey Kraus said his business is suffering. His said business relies on appointments, but without parking, it has been hard to set appointments. This plan was not well thought out, he said, asking what happens if there’s an emergency.
“The first block is blocks away from readily available spaces,” said Kraus, in an email June 3. “[Customers] have many choices these days, and these barriers will make that decision easy - Dewey, Highway, Lewes, Bethany. I bet our neighbors are cheering this move. It is unreasonable to ask many to walk blocks and blocks to get to where they want to go.”
Kraus said places where this effort has been implemented have plenty of parking and do not rely on on-street parking as their only option.
“We are very upset. Most of us are nonessential businesses coming off 10.5+ weeks of full shutdown. This is not a move to stimulate business; rather impede and destroy. This is a business killer,” said Kraus.
Andrea Senturk and her husband have owned and operated T-shirt World for 28 years. In an email June 4, Senturk said they are not against outdoor seating, only the loss of parking.
“The city has said they will open parking at the convention center. But they are not taking into consideration people who cannot walk that far,” said Senturk. “They have used the reason of social distancing, but there are many places in town that they cannot provide that at all.”
Senturk said she would like the city to remove the barriers as soon as possible. It was put up in three to four days, and they can be removed just as quickly, she said.
“Every day counts for us to pay our overhead and provide a living for our families. The let’s-wait-and-see-how-it-goes-until-June 15-or-longer attitude of the city is days we cannot get back, and we have already lost so much. If the city truly wants to help us all and not just a select few, then perhaps have free parking through the week for a few weeks,” said Senturk, who criticized the city for making decisions based on a survey that didn’t reach everyone.
“The city used Rehoboth Main Street to make an online survey. It was distributed to its members, but many business owners did not receive it, and many were not spoken to. Several were misunderstood and found the survey very misleading,” said Senturk. “I challenge the commissioners to meet with us. We are allowed to have groups of 250 people assemble. We can meet at the bandstand or the convention center parking lot. Get to know us, talk to us, hear us!”
Grant Willis, owner of Sierra Moon Surf and Skate and Lei Lula, said parking creates a relationship where businesses feed off one another. A person who parks on Second Street and walks to the beach or boardwalk will be exposed to hundreds of businesses that pay high rent to be there, he said, in an email June 3.
“I have so many customers who come into town to get Louie’s or Grotto, and shop with us while they wait for their order,” said Willis.
All shops have ramped up curbside pickup efforts and now have no spaces available for customers to stop and run in for a low-contact experience, said Willis.
“Some people are still scared or high risk, and they enjoy the idea of pickup! What happens when it rains? Who wants to park four blocks away and walk with no canopy over the sidewalks to visit stores?” asked Willis.
“The outlets will fulfill that need. I see those spots as potential revenue for both the city and the businesses. The more turnover allows access for new customers to drive into town, pull up and walk around.”
Removing the parking spots means all peripheral towns get more customers, said Willis.
“All of us agreed to help change a few rules to allow outside dining, we did not agree to giving up all parking,” said Willis. “The city has an opportunity to fix this and get it right, and it needs to be now. Each day spent with more restrictions! Red barriers! Directly equals lost income to all of the town.”