After nearly seven months of pandemic restrictions, downtown restaurateurs are seeing the proverbial light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel and are gearing up to reopen on Thursday, Oct. 1. Establishments like Hotel Congress have used the downtime as an opportunity to rethink how they will conduct business in the future as coronavirus lingers on.
"We're bursting with anticipation to open our doors to our community. This is the second time in the history of Hotel Congress that we have had to shut our doors," Hotel Congress marketing and events manager Dalice Shepard said. "For us, the work that we have been doing over the past couple of months is really about making sure when we reopen these doors, we're putting our best foot forward so they don't shut again."
The historic hub of downtown Tucson has reset their dining room in the Cup Cafe to accommodate for social distancing measures, implemented rigorous cleaning and sanitizing schedules throughout the establishment and reduced their outside patio occupancy to no more than 125 people. However, Club Congress will remain closed and the hotel does not have a reopening timeline at this time, said Shepard.
"Our capacity is set and we'll make sure it stays true everyday," Shepard said. "We don't want to have the place flooded with more people than we feel comfortable with."
The downtown reopening endeavor is due to a joint effort by Pima County Health Department, Downtown Merchants Association and Downtown Tucson Partnership helping area businesses become certified with the county health department's Ready For You program. The program makes sure restaurants, gyms, pools and attractions are in compliance with the county's May 21 proclamation setting minimum COVID-19 protective measures.
"When establishments adhere to all the measures, they are eligible to receive the Ready For You emblem for their door," Pima County Health Department Environmental Health Specialist Cesia Estrada said. "Upon completing the assessment, we also post them on our website as a Ready For You business and they receive promotional materials they can use on their social media sites to let the public know they're in compliance."
There are currently more than 700 businesses in Pima County certified Ready For You by the health department, according to program coordinator Nicholas Agar.
Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Kathleen Erikson said she has been working tirelessly to make sure her community of more than 150 downtown businesses are in compliance and ready to reopen by the Oct.1 deadline. The partnership also purchased more than 200 banners to promote the reopening and hundreds of posters featuring a QR Code that when scanned will give restaurant-goers a list of Ready For You Restaurants in the area, said Erikson.
"We want all of our businesses to open on the same date so when people come downtown, they know their favorite restaurant is going to be open," Erikson said. "We want our customers to know when they go into one of these businesses, they're not only meeting all of the CDC guidelines, but also the Pima County Health guidelines so they can feel safe going in."
Erikson also said free COVID-19 testing is available to downtown employees through the health department during the first week of October and will continue as needed.
Downtown Tucson Partnership and Pima County are also working to help downtown restaurants with two grant programs—The Outdoor Cafe Grant gives $5,000 to qualifying businesses to extend their dining rooms outside, and the Downtown Rebound Grant awards $2,000 to qualifying businesses to mitigate costs associated with COVID-19 related purchases, like PPE for employees.
The Outdoor Cafe Grant was allocated $105,000 and the Downtown Rebound Grant received $50,000 to be distributed to the local business community. Funding for both programs come from the federal CARES Act, said Erikson.
"With the help of the Pima County Health Department, we're providing a safe atmosphere for people to return to downtown in addition to a number of new outdoor cafes which should be up and running by the first week of October," Erikson said. "It's a win-win situation, because not only does it provide social distancing, it provides an open-air environment which is much safer in these conditions."
To date, 27 downtown businesses have been recipients of the nearly exhausted Outdoor Cafe Grant. However, the Downtown Rebound Grant is still flush with dollars to help downtown business owners update their dining rooms to be in compliance with the Ready For You program, according to Erikson. Both programs are set to end on Oct. 15.
The joint effort is just a start, according to Erickson. Pima County is poised to reproduce these two grant programs throughout various business districts in the Old Pueblo in an effort to help revitalize and stimulate commerce, she said. Fourth Avenue is scheduled to be the next community helped, according to Erikson.
"Pima County intentionally started with the Downtown Tucson Partnership with the intent of replicating this program," Erikson said. "We are thrilled to be the first and we're equally thrilled to work with the Fourth Avenue business district to help implement these grant dollars. We want to have cohesive branding throughout Fourth Avenue and downtown."