An increase in outdoor seating options on Franklin Street in response to COVID-19 social distancing requirements could pose potential problems for the disabled community.
As the pandemic presses on, local businesses and restaurants have had to get creative to stay afloat since restaurants in the state are limited to a 50 percent capacity. Many have chosen to extend seating outdoors to bring in more business.
Over the summer, the Town of Chapel Hill extended the sidewalk onto the street, blocking off traffic for a temporary walkway, which leaves space on the sidewalk for the addition of outdoor seating.
Sarah Gilles, a chairperson of the Disability Advocates Committee of the Campus Y, said the push for outdoor seating is good for business, but could shift accessibility standards to the back burner.
“I think they decided that the prevailing interest of keeping a restaurant open was more important,” she said. “I wouldn't say that they didn't consider it. I think they didn't make it a priority.”
Four Corners Grille, located on the corner of Franklin and Henderson streets beside Ye Olde Waffle Shop, recently constructed a deck in front of the restaurant for outdoor seating. It opened to the public at the end of September.
The deck extends out from the storefront, almost completely blocking the original sidewalk. In order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards, a small yellow ramp was added to the curb to allow disabled persons to enter the walkway along the street when passing through.
Dalvin Tsay, a doctoral student at UNC, uses a smaller wheelchair with balancing rails. He has used the ramp before, but he said it is very difficult to scale and would be impossible for someone with a larger wheelchair.
“It's not a gradual slope down to the street,” he said. “So I would actually have to brace myself with my feet as I near the ramp. And then when my chair comes at an angle, but I'm on the ramp, I use my seat to brace myself so I don't go face-first into the pavement.”
Four Corners owner Kristian Bawcom said due to the topography of the sidewalk, constructing a deck was the only option.
“There's almost a 2-foot drop from the time you walk out our front door till you get towards where the end of the deck is, which is the space we had to utilize,” he said. “So it's pretty much impossible to go ahead and put tables and chairs down there and keep them even comfortable for people to sit at.”
According to the Town’s approved plans, the deck also includes an ADA accessible table with a handicap sticker identifying it.
But Gilles said she worries these measures aren't enough. She said the yellow ramp into the street is too narrow, and there isn’t an easy exit route for disabled persons dining on the deck.
She said she wishes the Town gave that more thought in the approval process.
“Nobody was like, 'Is this actually like accessible?'" she said. "Or, 'Are we inconveniencing people who would like to use the sidewalk?' Maybe using the sidewalk is a bigger priority.”
Tsay said he used to frequent Linda’s and Bonchon, but since the sidewalk is blocked and the ramp poses difficulties for him, he doesn’t go very often anymore.
Chelsea Laws, director of building and development services for the Town of Chapel Hill, worked with Four Corners in the approval process. She said she worked with the public works department to assure that ramps were effectively put in place.
“We do take a very close look at the requirements for accessibility and make sure that people can get in and out of all the businesses in, around and through the sidewalk,” she said, “and that the minimum of 5 feet is available at all times.”
Four Corners isn't the only restaurant trying to balance all these different priorities.
Sup Dogs had outdoor seating prior to the pandemic but has since added more tables out into the sidewalk. One particular table lies in the center of the walkway.
Sara Pequeño, a server and bartender at Sup Dogs since 2016, said the spacing between their seating complies with ADA regulations, and the walkway on the pavement is acceptable. She said she notices that people aren’t using the walkway, though, which means accessibility is made more difficult for people in wheelchairs.
“For pedestrian traffic, people are still really using and relying heavily on the sidewalks on Franklin Street,” she said. “Trying to maneuver around these tables that have popped up, as well as physical bodies that are moving, in the middle of a pandemic, when college students on Franklin Street haven't exactly been the best about wearing masks — it's not really great in practice.”
Tsay said he can manage dodging these tables with his smaller wheelchair but has witnessed people using power wheelchairs struggle to get in and out.
“The power wheelchairs tend to be bulkier. They don't turn corners quite as tightly,” he said. “So, in those situations, I’ve seen either they have to wait for people to move out of that little outdoor dining area, so they can get in, or people would have to wait for them to get out first before they can move into that general area.”
Gilles said although she agrees outdoor seating is a smart option for business and COVID-19 safety, it’s still important for the Town to maintain its commitment to the disabled community.
“Disabled people don't just stop existing during COVID,” she said. “They continue to exist and continue to need to use sidewalks and roads and occasionally get food, even if it's dangerous to go out and do things.”
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