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Kent Restaurants Receive Tents and Heaters from City in Effort to Protect Outdoor Seating

But the future of al fresco dining in Seattle during the winter is unclear

A tented seating area outside Agave Cocina and Cantina in Kent, Washington
Agave Cocina set up a covered tent outside its restaurant with help from the city of Kent.
Agave Cocina and Cantina/Facebook

As more cold, blustery weather begins to descend on the region, Kent is helping local restaurants protect their patios. Using $175,000 in funds from the federal CARES Act, city leaders have worked with local nonprofit Kent Downtown Partnership in putting up tented seating areas and patio heaters around Kent Station, which includes popular spots such as Duke’s Seafood, Agave Cocina and Cantina, and Mama Stortini’s. The city hopes to have the project finished by the end of October, but is also fielding more requests on a first come, first serve basis.

“I think the businesses are really excited about this and take comfort that they don’t have to worry about [getting ready for winter] all on their own,” Gaila Gutierrez, executive director of Kent Downtown Partnership, tells Eater Seattle. “The heaters will help take some of the chill off and make diners more comfortable, and we’re also looking into putting up some additional lighting since it’s getting darker earlier.”

Winterizing outdoor seating will be a concern going forward throughout the region, as King County remains paused in phase two in the state’s reopening plan, which allows for 50 percent capacity both inside and outside. Without shelter from the rain, or heating elements on patios, it’s likely that most people won’t want to dine al fresco, where experts note the risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower than it would be in enclosed spaces (provided that people still wear masks and exercise social distancing).

Even though Gov. Jay Inslee lifted some restrictions for restaurants in phase two last week — such as allowing people from different households to sit inside and increasing table limits from five people to six — the long, winter months are coming, and it’s likely that the dining scene could suffer even more than it has already, if options continue to narrow.

“Having this available for the next few months, I think this is going to be a big plus for everyone,” Julian Ramos, owner of Agave Cocina and Cantina, told local news outlet KIRO7.

While Kent seems to be proactive in addressing the outdoor issue, it’s unclear what steps the city of Seattle is taking to provide restaurants with assistance in winterizing patio seating. Eater has reached out to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, but has not received any information about new guidelines for outdoor seating, nor any details on plans to assist local spots trying to make the most out of outdoor seating while it’s still tenable.

There are a few outdoor patios around the city run that have been set up by local organizations, such as The Patio in Columbia City and Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square, and Amazon has recently instituted a covered area for seating outside the Spheres. But several restaurateurs, owners, and chefs in other neighborhoods have expressed frustration that they are left to navigate the process of adjusting to colder weather on their own, particularly since the temporary permits from the city have certain limitations.

“It’s nice to have options that are safer for customers and employees alike, but only time will tell how effective this will be when it’s raining everyday and below 50 degrees,” says Wes Yoo, owner of The Gerald in Ballard, which recently transformed from a cocktail bar to a Korean restaurant with very limited outdoor seating. “Currently, our temporary permits for curbside dining does not allow any heating element. I was told the city is trying to figure something out with the fire department, but no word yet. And there’s been no help from the city on the cost other than they made the permit free.”

Hot dog vendor Dirty Dog, which has operated through the pandemic and protests on Capitol Hill, has received some local grants and funding to help keep his business afloat, but recently needed to launch a GoFundMe campaign in order to raise money to buy a canopy to shield his stand, once the weather turns. Owner Binyam Wolde says such a fixture will cost upwards of $25,000, and the city has been little help (one of his grants actually came from the Seahawks, since one of the Dirty Dog stands used to operate near CenturyLink Field).

Seattle’s lawmakers were proactive this summer in getting those aforementioned outdoor seating permits streamlined, and closing some streets for plazas in an effort to help local businesses. However, by the time much of that effort came to fruition, the calendar had already turned to August, and restaurants only had a few weeks of warm weather to generate extra revenue before colder weather — not to mention dangerous wildfire smoke — came in.

Plus, even though the temporary outdoor seating permits were free, the costs to set up al fresco dining — including signs to block the roads and other equipment — all fall on the businesses themselves.

“We’re starting to think about tenting and heaters but candidly, we’ve barely made our money back from the original investment for the street dining and it’s hard to think about throwing more money at it,” says Jennifer Petty, co-owner of Eden Hill Provisions in Queen Anne.

Seattle’s budget has generated heated discussions lately, as the city faces major constraints for the rest of the year and into 2021 due to lower tax revenue and higher costs from COVID emergency measures. There are higher priorities that the council and mayor are trying to address, so it’s no sure thing that Seattle will be able to replicate Kent’s tent initiative. But any little bit, including shelters from the coming storms, may help.