Shutdown threat a wakeup call for Oregon District visitors

Susan Bavaro, co-owner of Oregon Express, serves customers on Friday afternoon. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Oregon District businesses and downtown leaders are urging visitors to follow safety rules this weekend after Dayton’s mayor and public health officials threatened to shut down outdoor drinking and the Fifth Street pedestrian promenade if people act irresponsibly again.

The Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) and the Out on Fifth pilot program that closes East Fifth Street to vehicle traffic on the weekends have provided a major economic boost to bars, restaurants and retail shops in the district during the pandemic, said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

But after weeks of operation with no major reported issues, photos from last Saturday night showed a throng of people outside of bars in the district who were not wearing masks or social distancing.

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Mayor Nan Whaley and Montgomery County Health Commissioner Jeffrey Cooper said this behavior is unacceptable and people aren’t taking this crisis seriously at a time when the virus is rapidly spreading and the state is setting records for new cases.

Signs have been posted throughout the Oregon District asking visitors to wear masks and socially distance. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Business owners and managers in the district say they hope the warning and threat of a shutdown was a wake-up call that changes behaviors.

They say visitors need to be more careful this weekend and moving forward, because they are relying on outdoor drinking and dining to push their sales up toward more normal levels.

“It’s been very beneficial for the whole Oregon District,” said Susan Bavaro, co-owner of Oregon Express.

On Thursday, Mayor Whaley and commissioner Cooper said local COVID-19 cases are increasing at an alarming rate and they saw photos and received information indicating that unsafe crowds gathered last Saturday night in the Oregon District.

Health officials will patrol the Oregon District this weekend, monitoring compliance with mask regulations and social distancing rules.

A sign reminding people to be safe while in the Oregon District. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

The community wants to support Oregon District businesses, but they need to do it while limiting the risk of spreading the virus, by wearing masks and social distancing, Gudorf said.

“We know COVID is serious, and we know our numbers are increasing,” she said. “Like the mayor and others, we are asking our community to be responsible.”

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There’s too much at stake, and businesses have too much to lose, she said, and the Downtown Dayton Partnership has asked businesses in the district to remind guests to be safe and follow the rules.

The partnership also has modified outdoor seating to encourage people to spread out more.

Bavaro said after seven months of COVID-19, some people may accidentally let their guards down when they are out with friends and drinking.

Some people may get too close to others while talking and don’t put their masks on when they should, she said.

But Bavaro said she hopes the mayor’s and public health’s warning will make a difference and people will make better decisions.

“I hope it will work, and I think it will work,” she said.

She said the DORA and Out on Fifth generally have been successful and operated safely, and she does not want to see them come to an early and unfortunate end.

Out on Fifth has helped Salar Restaurant & Lounge add about 10 tables outside, said Brandi Perrine, general manager of Salar.

Indoor seating is about 65% of pre-pandemic capacity, so the expanded patio area has been very useful, she said.

DORA and the street patio space are helpful for Salar guests who do not feel comfortable dining or drinking inside, as well as others who want to take cocktails to-go to stroll the district, she said.

Businesses in the district are doing everything they can to keep staff and guests safe and healthy, and it is a small and tight-knit community, Perrine said.

“We can control what’s going on in our patio, but outside of that, we hope that everyone is taking this as seriously as we are,” she said.

She said businesses and customers know and want to support each other and she believes the recent warning will have a good outcome.

Some people think the threat of crowding on the street isn’t going to be much of a problem as temperatures drop. Demand for patio seating has declined as the weather got colder.

David Watkins, 40, has visited Out on Fifth on multiple occasions, including on Friday when he bought a beer to sip on while finishing some reading and concluding his work week.

Watkins said he prefers to visit the district earlier in the day because he likes to avoid the evening and nighttime crowds.

David Watkins carries a beer in the Oregon District's outdoor drinking area. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

He said he hopes the DORA and Out on Fifth aren’t shut down because he thinks drinking on the street is a generally safer option than having people drink indoors.

“I understand their concern, but I come back to my compared to what question,” he said. “Even if people aren’t 100% following guidelines outdoors, might they just be at other bars indoors not quite following guidelines or at people’s houses not following guidelines.”

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