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Restaurant owners hoping to hold on to pandemic-era street dining

For some restaurant owners, parklets brought in hope, along with customers willing to spend their money dining outdoors where they felt safer.

AUBURN, Wash. — There are many social things that have come about during the COVID-19 pandemic that people can't wait to get rid of, but restaurant owners are actually hoping to keep one thing in particular.

The pandemic forced many businesses to come up with new strategies to survive, especially as so many were forced to shut down completely only to later reopen with restrictions that hurt some businesses even though they were meant to keep people safe.

For some restaurant owners, parklets brought in hope, along with customers willing to spend their money dining outdoors where they felt safer.

"[Customers] were still able to have a gathering of people during the pandemic that could sit outside because [before] our outdoor seating was so limited," said Krisiti Newman, the owner of Rail Hop'n Brewing Co. in Auburn.

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Newman has owned her business for over a decade. She and her husband, the brewer, decided to do a lot of traveling to other breweries during the pandemic, and what they saw inspired them.

"I think that it just brings that vibe of a bigger city to a smaller city," she said.

So Newman reached out to the Downtown Auburn Cooperative who then partnered with the city to make it happen.

"The city paid for the materials to build the parklets, and we built them ourselves," said Auburn community development director Jeff Tate in an email. "The city is simply trying to soften the financial burden that business is already facing by paying for the structure and to support their efforts to create more safe and healthy options for their clientele."

Parklets were already around before the pandemic, but they became all the rage once more restaurant owners noticed how well they were being received.

"It's been such a blessing, and it's been so wildly popular," Newman said.

Plus, they fit into a parking space on the street which became truly convenient for Newman's business on Auburn's Main Street downtown, with parking spots right outside their front door.

"It has helped us so much because there are still people that are nervous about indoor settings," she said.

So far, there are two parklets in the city of Auburn. Each parklet was about $4,000 in materials, but the city does plan to build more.

"We have not yet done this because we wanted to get two out into the community first and see how well they were received by businesses and patrons," said Tate in his email. "We anticipate building a couple more, but that probably won’t happen until 2022."

In the meantime, Newman said she is working on re-permitting with the Liquor Control Board and the city of Auburn to keep the parklet she thought would be temporary.

"It looks great in our city, it brings awareness to businesses that are down here that people might not have seen [and it] gives [people] an outlet to dine outdoors," said Newman.