I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed a day or so ago, when I came across a man who, citing a news article that helped support his point, was arguing that the City of Saratoga Springs should temporarily shut down Broadway to traffic, so that restaurants, for instance, could properly mete out socially distanced real estate to potential diners. This could happen for at least the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis, but possibly longer. It’s certainly not a novel concept, and I think that during a time like this one, in which we’ve been forced to get creative on all fronts, whether it be through telemedicine, tele-education, tele-religion or tele-commuting, it’s the type of idea that could have legs—literally.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a native Saratogian, who, after college, lived abroad for a year and then spent about 14 years in New York City. I remember when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to shut down portions of Times Square and Herald Square to cars, turning them into “pedestrian plazas.” There was an immediate uproar. How could this be good for anyone? Taxis would be put out of business! People wouldn’t be able to get to work! It would be mayhem! Since then, it’s become an incredibly popular trend downstate, with more than 70 pedestrian plazas popping up throughout the city (here’s a full list). It’s made streets safer and helped boost the economy. The naysayers were silenced, and the Naked Cowboy continues to play, unabated.
Again, though, the idea of shutting down Broadway in Saratoga doesn’t really have anything to do with traffic or accidents or smog—at least at the moment. First and foremost, it has to do with health: It would offer Saratogians, and potentially hordes of summer tourists, more space to walk around, socially distanced from one another. It would help keep the infection rate down and save lives. And given the fact that the Capital Region needs to get its hospitalizations and hospital deaths down before it can reopen, all the more reason to try, right? (Need I remind you what this virus can do to healthy people?)
A temporary Broadway shutdown could also help facilitate three equally important, interrelated issues, which all depend on the Capital Region getting through its four phases of reopening before the peak summer months:
(1) It would help increase socially distanced foot traffic in Downtown Saratoga, which is likely facing an apocalyptic scenario due to the fact that Saratoga Race Course will likely be devoid of fans, or worse, depending on when the Capital Region is able to get itself in the mix of regions able to begin a phased reopening; and the fact that the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) will be presenting a greatly reduced season (top-flight acts such as the Dave Matthews Band and Bob Dylan have already postponed/cancelled their shows);
(2) It would increase the ability for small businesses, such as restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, cafes and boutiques, to create socially distanced seating and displays, essentially allowing them to “extend” their real estate beyond the normal brick-and-mortar locations (obviously, that would have to be closely regulated, too; and people could still park on side streets to pick up delivery orders, if they still needed to);
(3) And above all, it would provide those businesses a fighting chance to survive the summer months by bringing in much-needed dollars across the board. I’m sure the “Broadway effect” would be felt beyond that single strip of street that runs through the city, too.
As a few of the commenters noted on that fellow’s original Facebook post, Broadway quickly turns into US 9 on its south side, which is technically maintained by the New York State Department of Transportation; and it also branches off just before North Broadway to become the New York 29 truck route. So, as the commenters argued, shutting Broadway down to traffic would not only be a city-, but also a state-level issue. And if that truck route were affected, it could potentially disrupt commerce. Hey, look, if they could permanently shut down massive portions of Times Square in Manhattan, which sees 50 million tourists per year, they can figure out a way of (temporarily!) doing it in small town Saratoga, which reins in an estimated 1.5 million during the summer months. (Those numbers are likely going to be way down this summer anyway.)
We’d also not be the first city, by a long shot, to do something as drastic as this. The city of Berkeley in California is shutting down many of its streets, so that its downtown restaurant scene can survive; and Portland, ME and Denver, CO are thinking about doing the same. Seattle is shutting down 20 miles of streets to traffic, so that people can get outside and exercise more during the crisis, and Boston is weighing doing the same. Philadelphia has shut down streets to traffic, as has Minneapolis. All of this will likely be temporary, but who knows? It could catch on.
We’re living in unprecedented times right now—ones that I was literally reading about on vacation last year in an 800-page, fictional Stephen King novel (The Stand), which I laughed off as horror-fiction trash. Do I think that it’s the answer to all of our problems? No. But am I willing to try anything right now to ensure that all Saratogians are safe and our small businesses survive the summer? Absolutely.