Restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor are pictured with a street and cars in the foreground.
Sarah Boeke/Daily. Buy this photo.

In June 2020, three months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Save Lives” executive order, Ann Arbor joined a growing group of municipalities implementing temporary street closures to enable physical distancing for downtown restaurants and retailers. 

Ann Arbor City Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, who is also the owner of Jerusalem Garden, said his experience running a local business motivated him to work on the initial street closure agenda.

“We talked to police and Washtenaw County health officials to create a safe area for people to come downtown,” Ramlawi said. “Equally important is to help businesses stay alive. Since people couldn’t dine-in, we wanted to set up outdoor sittings to the extent permissible.”

The street closures instituted for last summer were temporarily suspended in November. On March 21, the City Council passed a resolution announcing the return of street closures. The return of street closures not only allows city officials and downtown merchants to be prepared for renewed pandemic restrictions, but also creates a testing ground for a more lively downtown area as the city moves past the pandemic. The Michigan Daily spoke to Ann Arbor community members about the impacts of the revival of this policy on small businesses, community engagement and potential issues with accessibility.

Ann Arbor’s social district was first introduced in November 2021 as the area of the city containing all block closures to allow people to walk around with open alcoholic beverages. An April 18 City Council resolution extended the social district’s operational hours.

The block closures and social district are both organized by the Main Street Area Association (MSAA), which works to make Ann Arbor’s downtown area and businesses successful. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Sandra Andrade, executive director of MSAA, said she expects the joint impact of the social district and its block closures to enhance foot traffic in outdoor spaces.

“My estimate is that the number (of participants) will double,” Andrade said. “The goal is to encourage people to be outside enjoying the space rather than inside. I am looking forward to incorporating that into the block closure this year.”

Andrade said increased foot traffic drawn by the social district and block closure would encourage more activities and events on the street. 

“Because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to really engage the street space as far as we want,” Andrade said. “This year, we are going to start doing that. So Friday, we’ll be announcing a Thursday night music series. We’ll have community mornings on Fridays, and on Saturdays, the candles will light up the area. We really opened it up to anybody who wants to engage with street space.”

Opportunities for businesses and restaurants

2022 marks the first year certain downtown businesses get to experience the social district and street closure. Cinnaholic, a vegan bakery that opened at the beginning of this year, is actively adjusting to the business rhythm of downtown Ann Arbor. Doug Moeller, the owner of the Cinnaholic, said in an interview with The Daily that he is looking forward to the upcoming events later this summer.

“We haven’t actually experienced it,” Moeller said. “But you know, I did live here before. I kind of know what to expect from those things … that’s going to drive a lot of traffic here. We’re gonna have tables outside selling baby buns during the art fair … we’re staying open later on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Like many businesses on Main Street, even though most of their current orders are takeout through Snackpass, Moeller said he is researching how to expand outdoor dining. Andrade said businesses must complete an application process before they can expand outdoor dining capacity.

“People have to get sidewalk occupancy permits directly with the city,” Andrade said. “The Main Street Area Association holds the permit for the street space. So for folks expanding to the street, going through us is just a simple process including signing a contract that follows the city rules, like noise control.”

The extended social district also allows downtown businesses to connect with one another and get involved in local causes. Lauren Bloom, the owner of Bløm Meadworks, said the social district and summer events offered her business an opportunity to advance its sustainability efforts and strengthen community ties when they were previously put into place for half the week.

“We bought compostable cups from a retailer here in Ann Arbor for takeouts, and we bought compostable stickers that have a social district logo on it,” Bloom said. “We offer discounts for participants of the biking events, and we’re also working on a local food-focused event during A2ZERO week. We love doing collaborative events. It’s so fun for us to work with other small business owners. In the meantime, our customers get introduced to their business and vice versa.”

For restaurants still reeling from the financial costs of the pandemic, the block closure enables outdoor seating and provides a lifeline.

TAQ is a local destination for tacos and margaritas. Cynthia Messmore, the owner of TAQ, said in an email to The Daily that the business could not have survived the early stages of the pandemic if not for outdoor dining.

“We currently pay over $10,000 a month for our small space,” Messmore wrote. “Without the additional seating in the summer, we would not be in business.”

What residents think

In interviews with The Daily, Ann Arbor residents spoke on the ways block closures have impacted their personal lives and routines. Rackham student Bahaa Aldeeb said he appreciated the block closures and wished they could be a permanent feature.

“It is nice to walk outside and it is nice to have social distance,” Aldeeb said. “We hope the city could make (block closures) more official rather than a bunch of random obstacles in the middle of the street. That would make it feel more like a forever thing and would encourage us to visit here even more often.”

Although some drivers may have to drive or park further away from their workplace due to the blockades placed on the street, a survey conducted by the MSAA reported that 96% of the 1,400 respondents are in favor of street closures. 

University of Michigan alum Nick Hall works for the law firm Gunderson Dettmer located in The First National Bank Building, a historical landmark on Main Street. Hall said he supports the closure and that the policy has little impact on his commute.

“When I come into work, the streets are usually still open in the morning before they start to (close) it,” Hall said. “So that makes it easy to still get in and leave. We still work from home a lot, so we may only go to the office once or twice a week.”

Andrade said the current block closure policy was informed by the MSAA survey results to minimize its traffic impact. Full-time closure is only implemented along a section on Washington Street between North Ashley and Main Street. All other sections, including Main Street and part of East Liberty, are only closed from Thursday evening through Monday morning. 

While an overwhelming majority of residents who participated in the MSAA survey favored the change, those who voiced their concerns included residents with mobility challenges who felt disregarded by the interesting, yet potentially inaccessible, business corridor. 

U-M alum Richetta VanSickle is a long-time downtown resident who works for the Washtenaw County Circuit Court. In an interview with The Daily, VanSickle said she has been diagnosed with brain cancer, which affects her balance. She said the Main Street area poses a year-round mobility challenge, a particularly frustrating issue because it felt as though she was being excluded from her own neighborhood.

“In the winter, the snow was pushed over to the curb, and I had to get across the snow pile to the parking meter where I parked my car,” VanSickle said. “Right now, I don’t understand why Washington Street is blocked off (the) full week, because that is an easy way to access the main street given the ground parking.”

Ann Arbor resident Tiffanny Dellheim has been grappling with her husband Mike Dellheim’s mobility challenge given his end-stage renal disease. While Mike Delheim is awaiting a kidney transplant, he experiences issues with walking long distances. Tiffanny Dellheim said she and her husband have tried to check out some Main Street restaurants once in a while after work or on the weekend, but the block closure made the restaurants effectively inaccessible for them.

“If we can’t get the car closer to the restaurant, it is just not worth going anymore,” Tiffanny Dellheim said. 

Mike Dellheim spoke on suggestions for how the city could better incorporate the needs of people with disabilities into the current street closure design.

“It would be helpful if there is a way to get special access,” Mike Dellheim said. “Also (the city has) a lot of street parking along the side roads. They could convert some of those street spots into handicap spots.”

Ramlawi said while he is aware of these issues and city staff are working to address them, he doesn’t know if any concrete progress has been made. 

“I know the mayor made a statement during the (March 21) City Council meeting that the city staff were working on (accessibility measures),” Rawlawi said.

VanSickle said she wishes people could broaden their understanding of the challenges that impact people with disabilities by including their perspectives when making street design decisions. 

“People always think if you have a disability, someone could always be around when you are out, which is not true,” VanSickle said. “For 32 years I have gone to places all by myself, but I can’t walk long distances. As a longtime resident, I hope I don’t need to walk blocks or drive to outer town to get a hamburger.”

Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at

Editors Note: This article has been corrected to provide further context.