Seattle’s Safe-Start program: Why it started, where it’s going, and how you can share your feedback on what happens next

What is the Safe-Start program and why has it been beneficial to small businesses?

Prior to June 2020, Seattle’s small businesses had to fork over thousands of dollars and navigate a lot of regulatory red tape if they wanted to obtain outdoor seating permits. Put simply, getting the green light to serve patrons outside was both expensive and time-consuming—a combination that was not sustainable for many small business owners.

Then, the pandemic happened. Its devastating impact on local businesses created urgent demand for outdoor seating permits as many business owners navigated how to stay in business, protect their employees, and serve customers safely.

In response, the city introduced the Safe Start program, which waived all outdoor permit fees and expedited the approval process so that businesses could more easily operate outdoor cafés, retail merchandise displays, food trucks, vending carts, and fitness activities. Regardless of whether you’re a small business owner, employee, or customer—or all of the above—you likely benefitted from this program.

But now, after several extensions, the Safe Start program is sunsetting in January 2023, meaning all Safe Start permits will expire in less than six months. Where does that leave Seattle small businesses? We dive into that below.

What happens after the Safe Start program is slated to end in January 2023?

The short answer: nothing is confirmed yet. As January 2023 approaches, many small business owners want to know what will be required of them so they can devote the necessary resources toward keeping their business compliant, safe, and profitable.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) has responded by issuing a draft proposal in late July, which details “long-term changes and updates to our permit requirements.” The proposal is expected to be completed and submitted to the City Council this summer, but until then, SDOT is asking for public feedback on the plan by August 15, 2022.

The draft proposal, which outlines proposed changes to outdoor dining/sidewalk cafes, vending, street and sidewalk activities, and sidewalk merchandising displays, answers many of the questions business owners have been asking for months. These include: What kind(s) of permits will we need to secure? Will we have to resume paying permit fees? How can we ensure our outdoor structures are up to code? How can I display my merchandise? What kind of goods can I vend and where am I allowed to go?

While the answers to these questions—and any related changes—are not yet final, they provide a solid idea of what the SDOT is planning in the new year. We encourage Seattle small business owners to review this proposal and submit their feedback by August 15. You can find the proposed changes for each Safe Start program below:

Small business owners deserve timely, straightforward guidance on the permits and fees required to run their business smoothly and effectively. We work alongside our clients to provide regular updates on this process and make sense of any changes together. If you have questions about what the end of Safe Start might mean for your business, reach out to our team.