Pandemic offers rare chance to reimagine our shared public spaces

If you’d fallen into a coma in late 2019 and woke up today, you probably wouldn’t guess our country had just experienced its deadliest pandemic or that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that caused COVID-19, killing at least 1.1 million Americans, disabling upwards of 1.2 million more and becoming one of the leading causes of death for our nation’s children is still out there — still infecting, still disabling and still killing.

Few people avoid crowded indoor spaces these days and those who do gather indoors rarely wear the N95-style respirator masks shown to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. 

These lack of precautions, however, don’t mean COVID is gone. In fact, between Jan. 26 and Feb. 2, Clark County added an additional 202 COVID cases and three more COVID-related deaths to its data and showed that the weekly community transmission rate, which looks at the number of new SARS-CoV-2 (COVID) cases per 100,000 residents, had ticked up to 50 from a rate of 43 the week before. 

Scientists have warned that SARS-CoV-2 is still rapidly mutating and could produce variants that can get through our vaccines and antiviral drugs. The latest variant of concern, known as “Kraken,” is even more contagious than other omicron variants and does have the ability to somewhat evade our natural- and vaccine-induced immunity.

The virus is still changing,” a Japanese virologist told The Washington Post just six months ago. “A more problematic variant may emerge. It was a dramatic change from alpha to delta; then delta to omicron is a very significant change. For influenza, such a dramatic change only occurs when pandemic influenza emerges. But for COVID-19, every six months or so pandemic influenza-like incidents are occurring.”

Despite the fact that COVID hasn’t disappeared and that the spread of the virus could lead to more powerful, even more transmissible variants, the majority of our society seems OK with going back to their pre-COVID lives.

But is this shift “back to normal” really the best thing for our communities in the long run? 

“I don’t like the idea of going ‘back to normal,’” the Japanese virologist told The Washington Post. “That means going back to the pre-pandemic society. That pre-pandemic society is very, very fragile — for many risks, not just infectious disease.”

Rather than rushing “back to normal” and risking a very abnormal reckoning in the face of a more deadly COVID variant or other debilitating virus — or making life even harder for community members who can never just “go back to normal,” perhaps because they’re immunocompromised and at greater risk of severe harm from SARS-C0V-2 or maybe because they are already experiencing debilitating effects of “long COVID” and realize being reinfected with the virus would put them at even greater risk of death and disability — we should be urging our local and state officials to lean into the lessons we learned during the height of the pandemic. 

In Camas this week, officials postponed a conversation about renewing the city’s pandemic-era outdoor dining “parklets” that helped some downtown restaurants better weather a statewide ban on indoor dining during the height of the pandemic.

City officials and staff worried opening the discussion would add to the city’s already lengthy list of projects included in the mayor’s 2023-24 budget, but we hope this issue will be resurrected during the downtown Camas subarea planning process or when city leaders consider new codes and design standards for the city’s North Shore. 

There are silver linings to be found in the COVID pandemic and one of them is the reimagining of our public spaces — including our publicly owned streets — and a subtle shift toward more car-free areas where people can gather outdoors, enjoy local restaurants and have less risk of contracting an airborne illness than they would in a crowded, poorly ventilated indoor space. 

In Portland, for example, the city has partnered with local businesses, nonprofits and community organizations for its Public Street Plazas program, which has repurposed nearly a dozen public streets into public gathering spaces where people can enjoy a meal, or live music or, as the city says, “simply sit and relax with others.”
While the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce has said its poll of downtown Camas businesses showed little support for continuing the outdoor dining “parklets,” Portland’s Public Street Plazas program has garnered strong support from local business groups. The Montavilla Plaza in southeast Portland, which features a public seating area and room for pop-up markets and live music performances during the warmer weather months, for instance, is supported by the Montavilla East Tabor Business Association. Likewise, the city’s Dream Street Plaza in inner northeast Portland is supported by the Soul District Business Association; and the St. Johns Plaza in north Portland, which provides space for community activities throughout the summer months, has the support of the St. Johns Boosters group.

Some studies have shown that reinventing public spaces on streets — even at the expense of available parking spots — led to increased revenues for local businesses. 

“Pedestrian-friendly street redesigns often face resistance from business owners, who fear that they’ll lose revenue from inconvenienced drivers,” an article published in Bloomberg in May 2021, pointed out. “(But) a new data analysis by Yelp adds some free insights into what really happens to local commerce when vehicle traffic is kept out.” 

That study showed consumers were more interested in restaurants in these “slow street” or car-free zones than in other parts of the same cities. Likewise, a 2020 Portland State University study showed that street improvements in business districts that allowed for greater pedestrian and bicyclist access had positive economic impacts for those nearby businesses. 

Camas and Washougal leaders should all be looking for ways they can learn from the pandemic and begin to consider the benefits — including reduced air pollution, increased business, improved mental health, higher property values and a more interactive community — of using our shared public streets for more than just driving and parking.