Russell Rawlings hasn’t been going out much the past few months.
Prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Rawlings and his motorized wheelchair could be seen frequently around Sacramento’s downtown. Rawlings, who has cerebral palsy, ran for mayor in 2016 and has been an active voice on a variety of public issues, including working as statewide community organizer with the Disability Organizing Network, which works to include people with disabilities in the discussions that affect them through education, advocacy and organization.
But Rawlings has been generally staying inside his North Oak Park home while coronavirus cases have proliferated. “I’ve been taking the social distancing very seriously,” Rawlings says. “I feel very privileged that I have a support system that can allow me to do that.”
It also helps Rawlings avoid sidewalks that have become tricky to navigate during the pandemic, as the city has actively encouraged eateries to operate outside through its Farm to Fork Al Fresco program. While the city urges eateries to place tables on private property whenever possible to limit legal liability for the city, it’s also been providing free permitting for those that would like to place tables in the public right-of-way.
The Al Fresco program has helped restaurants — and given them another way to be financially viable — at a historically tough time. But it’s also created some disability access issues, affecting a group of people already well-versed in dealing with the sort of challenges a nondisabled person might never think about.
“We’re getting ready to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the (American with Disabilities Act) this month,” Rawlings says. “I think for me, it’s more of an equity issue, right? What does it look like for a person who is disabled and uses a mobility device and is living in … a neighborhood that is not well-connected to services?”
Josh Werner, an engineer who frequently handles ADA-related issues for the city through its public works department, says the response to the Al Fresco program has been largely positive as roughly 80 Sacramento restaurants have obtained permits to operate in the public right-of-way, such as on sidewalks or in streets. For example, 20th Street has been closed to vehicular traffic outside of Lowbrau, with tables set up and a temporary stand for purchasing food and drinks.
But Werner also says the city received a complaint emailed July 4, related to Track 7 The Other Side on Folsom Boulevard. The complainant, whose name was blacked out in a copy of the email that Werner provided to Comstock’s, wrote that the venue had expanded seating onto a sidewalk, with barricades extending into the street. “Allowing businesses to expand their seating onto sidewalks creates a hazard for wheelchair users and other disabled individuals who need access to the sidewalk,” the complainant wrote.
A similar situation could be seen outside Paesanos in Midtown, where orange barriers herd pedestrians off the sidewalk and onto the curb around tables set up on sidewalks in front of the restaurant.
Werner says accessibility issues are the first thing the city assesses when considering approving outdoor dining venues. He also says Paesano’s, which is permitted, is “supposed to have a ramp (off the curb) and 5-feet-width for the alternate path, which is how it was when it was installed” and that the city coordinated with a contractor “to ensure sufficient space.”
Still, even with the care taken, it doesn’t look easy for wheelchair users to maneuver their chairs down the ramp and walkway, particularly with other pedestrians around.
There’s also a question of what businesses might do after their inspections and how residents might call attention to violations. Werner says the city “does check in on the permitted various dining sites,” but says regular inspections are costly. The city turns to property business improvement districts, or PBIDs, such as the Midtown Business Association to manage and maintain many of the sites. There isn’t a dedicated portal for residents to file complaints, though Werner said they could be submitted by emailing the city.
That all might not be sufficient for someone like Rawlings. “I’ve kind of been avoiding, honestly, a lot of Midtown,” he says.
As for the situation with Track 7 The Other Side, it was quickly corrected. Werner says the location wasn’t permitted for right-of-way seating. He got the email the Monday morning after it came in and says the city shut down the unpermitted sidewalk seating “the first day.” Werner spoke with representatives from Track 7, ultimately prevailing upon them to move tables into parking spaces in front of the business and an adjacent salon, where permits aren’t needed.
“We’re trying to help out restaurants,” Werner says. “This is a tough time for everybody, there’s people going out of business. We knew the success of the program would be based on how it doesn’t inconvenience the public too much. That’s why every single one of these we look at, we’re ensuring we’re able to move pedestrians around safely.”
Track 7 owner Ryan Graham didn’t respond to requests for comment. Gabrielle Garcia, a manager at Face & Body Emporium next door, says the owners of the business where she works are letting Track 7 put tables free of charge in some of its parking space. “We all pay rent at this property, so we’re trying to do the best we can to support these small businesses and help out one another,” Garcia says.
That’s the same attitude Rawlings has had in his infrequent trips out to places like the Saturday Oak Park Farmers Market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, sometimes offering to grab things for friends.
“This is a time where we really need to focus on building mutual networks of support,” Rawlings says. “I think it’s a matter of really honestly just getting back to that basic mutual reliance upon one another that we have.”
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