There’s a scene in the final act of “The Wiz,” 1978 musical based on L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, that gets me every time I watch it. After Dorothy has killed Evilene, the tyrannical Wicked Witch of the West, belabored sweatshop workers peel off their leathery skins to transform into limber, well-moisturized dancers, clapping and prancing into grand jetes while singing “Brand New Day”, a song written and arranged by the late great Luther Vandross.
Last weekend, I felt the same freeing joy as those sweatshop workers when I ventured downtown and experienced hundreds of diners dining at restaurants, some for the first time in six months. It felt like a brand new day, the beginning of something new and potentially sustainable. Both Winston-Salem and Greensboro are temporarily closing street traffic on weekends to give businesses more outdoor seating options and attract more foot traffic downtown.
Personally, I felt comfortable enough to venture just outside of downtown and dip a hesitant toe into the West End neighborhood on Saturday and visit Mozelle’s Southern Bistro where outdoor seating is always premium. I was not the only diner with the idea. I saw friends out with their children, got to gossip with my favorite servers and enjoy a fried chicken salad in the fresh air while unencumbered.
It was nice; it felt normal-ish.
Other restaurants are following suit by adding outdoor dining to their business model. Winston-Salem businesses lead the Triad with the introduction of The Streatery. In late July, the Twin City tested outdoor seating while requiring diners to follow social distancing guidelines and mask requirements. Masks were available to pedestrians not following the rules and restaurant staff were visibly wiping down tables between parties. Due to its success, more dates are scheduled and Trade Street will be folded into the experience on Aug. 21.
The same concept in Greensboro called Open Streets, which began last week, will continue every Friday and Saturday through August and potentially into September.
“The alfresco experience in the street is not something that is normally allowed,” says Jason Thiel, president of Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. “We have safe distancing and require masks ‘til you get to the table. And there are many more restaurants open in short walking distance downtown to offer other choices.”
Young Cardinal Café which serves breakfast and lunch only seemed to benefit from the expansion of outdoor seating and hours of operation.
Rodney Davis, a leasing manager at The Historic Nissen Building Apartments in Winston-Salem dined at Young Cardinal Café with family who traveled from Rural Hall to enjoy the event. During the pandemic he tried to spread his dollars around to different restaurants in economic support. Davis says, ”When you live and work downtown, you have your favorites, but you try to support everyone.”
With careful consideration not to call the event a festival or parade, restaurants and retailers from Market to Lewis Streets in downtown Greensboro were invited to open up outdoor and sidewalk spaces to patrons in Greensboro for Open Streets in mid-August.
“The street being closed definitely brought people out that maybe were hesitant to come out because people could spread out more,” says Kris Fuller, chef and owner of Crafted, Art of Street Food in downtown Greensboro. “For us on our block, you could see how much it livened up the street.”
Standing in the car-free intersection of Elm and McGee felt carefree during the event last Saturday afternoon. While the traffic lights blinked and changed, it felt like an act of rebellion after months of being cooped up inside of the house. It was like taking back the streets and our towns in an economic protest against COVID-19 and state government restrictions. Masked pedestrians and diners were able to peel off their own skins while walking down the street freely.
“I hope they expand this and take it on to other streets or allow other restaurants to have outdoor areas like that,” Fuller said.
As the sun set on downtown, the only thing that seemed to be missing was music. No worries, “Brand New Day” is not just an earworm. It’s a promise of a new beginning for our beleaguered hospitality industry.