Burlingame Avenue returning to being a pedestrian street would be beneficial to our city. Following San Mateo County’s move to the red tier, retail and outdoor dining can expand their number of customers, and a pedestrian street would encourage consumers to properly follow COVID-19 guidelines while supporting local businesses.
Last June, when restaurants were first permitted to open for outdoor dining, the City of Burlingame decided to close Burlingame Avenue to vehicles on the weekends. It appeared to be a great idea that produced great results. I vividly remember the first time I went downtown on a weekend after the closure was implemented. Restaurants tables, while awkwardly spread out, were filled with people, and stores were open and busy with customers. It resembled life before a pandemic. There were certainly some people not socially distanced, and I remember a few stragglers not wearing masks, but these protocol violations weren’t unique to the Ave. In that moment, I was very hopeful that we as a society could adapt to a pandemic-adjusted style of life.
In August, four months before a second statewide stay-at-home order was ordered, city officials decided to end the pedestrian street program, citing an abundance of COVID-19 protocol violations. As someone who lives close to the street and walks on it often, I questioned their logic behind this decision.
It seemed to me that the removal of the pedestrian street was a move driven by a focus on the city’s public appearance rather than actual public safety — an attempt to seem proactive, while not doing a lot to prevent the spread of COVID-19. If anything, the removal of the pedestrian street was a step backwards. Just because protocol violations would no longer in the middle of a street as popular as Burlingame Avenue doesn’t mean they wouldn’t happen elsewhere.
The city is absolutely right to be worried about COVID-19 guidelines not being followed; however, it’s naive to assume that closing a pedestrian street will limit protocol violations. If the amenities of Burlingame Avenue are available, people will go downtown, regardless of whether they are walking on the street or sidewalk. Social distancing is virtually impossible on busy sidewalks. Those who weren’t distancing or wearing masks on the street aren’t going to start doing so on the sidewalk, and those who were distancing will find it much harder to do so on a significantly more crowded sidewalk. Now that businesses and restaurants have the go-ahead to start reopening, wouldn’t it be appropriate to give pedestrians the extra room to walk while maintaining social distancing measures?
Burlingame’s Vice Mayor Ann O’Brien Keighran has spoken out against the idea of using police to enforce COVID-19 protocols on Burlingame Avenue, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t. There is already a police presence downtown, and considering COVID-19 is a major public health threat. Officers, whose job is to serve and protect the community, should be helping to promote public safety.
An argument I have heard against the pedestrian street has been the lack of handicapped parking surrounding Burlingame Avenue. I agree that it would be unfair and unreasonable to many of the disabled and elderly people to force them to walk to and from their cars to the Ave. This is a valid argument, but the issue is easy to get rid of. There is no shortage of parking surrounding Burlingame Avenue. According to the Burlingame’s website, there are 19 public parking lots in the area — not including the Safeway parking lot. I can’t imagine the city has a shortage of blue paint, so converting more spots into handicap parking would be an easy fix to the problem. There is plenty of parking to go around for the rest of us.
A pedestrian street would have sent the wrong message to members of the community during the statewide stay-at-home order when outdoor dining and most retail shops were shut down. But, now that the order has ended, I see no reason why the pedestrian street should not be reinstated, with an increased focus on enforcing safety protocols and added handicapped parking.