With the enormous changes and challenges incurred by dining establishments as a result of the pandemic over the last 16 months, many businesses suffered immense losses. Many could not recover.
Restaurants felt the pain instantly and had to adapt to rapid changes with not only public health department codes, but customers’ anxiety regarding COVID-19 transmission.
Like many California cities, some in the San Gabriel Valley — like Monrovia, Sierra Madre and Pasadena — were quick to adjust to the modifications and, in light of necessity, became very inventive. Parking lots were turned into impromptu al fresco dining destinations and, even during inclement weather, diners were quick to embrace the popular European style of dining.
State and local officials have taken notice of the popularity of these new dining habits and earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended relaxed regulations allowing outdoor dining expansions and to-go cocktails, at least through the end of the year. State Senator Scott Weiner introduced a bill “proposing to ease restrictions on outdoor dining, which would not only make parklets permanent but also make serving alcohol in parklets easier, only relying on existing liquor licenses,” Eater SF reports.
There are, however, some drawbacks.
In Sierra Madre, for example, there were initial concerns about parking spaces, but those trepidations were quelled by the city.
“Initially we had concerns about parking and that patios would reduce available space. In response to this we completed a parking survey that showed we had a surplus of parking, but we still converted several 2-hour spots to 20-minute spots, hired a parking enforcement officer to patrol downtown, and added spaces in areas that could handle a few more spots,” said City Manager Gabreil L. Engeland. “Sierra Madre also took additional safety precautions, including bollards, fencing, raised platforms, planters with reflectors, and reducing the speed in the business district to 15 miles per hour.”
The Sierra Madre City Council agreed to extend the restaurant enhanced dining options and to make the option permanent at their last meeting.
“This will allow for patio dining, enhanced sidewalk dining, and make changes to the Code that will make it easier for businesses to operate,” England told Beacon Media News Monday morning.
Lauren Vasquez, assistant city manager for the City of Monrovia, told Beacon that the city “continues to evaluate” the al fresco/parking situation but complaints have been minimal. Vasquez said that both the state and county are aligned with allowing outdoor dining to continue until at least the end of December 2021.
Additionally, as the movie theater will be reopening at the end of July — the first time since the pandemic forced its sudden closure but now under the name LOOK Dine-in Cinema — the al fresco dining arrangement will need a little rearrangement as some local eateries utilize the sidewalk directly in front of the theater, but the assistant city manager said the impact should be minimal.
In Pasadena, the “parklet program is not exclusive to restaurants, retailers may also take advantage of the option to set-up a parklet in the right-of-way provided their business location meets criteria. While the City has helped to sustain restaurants with options for outdoor dining, it is usually restaurants which bring people out which has a spillover effect onto nearby retail stores,” Lisa Derderian, Pasadena public information officer, explained.
“The City of Pasadena has proceeded with caution as to the types of traffic control deployed for our outdoor dining set-ups. In Pasadena, it’s typical to find K-rail concrete barriers, Meridien-style barricades, or water-filled barricades (depending upon location- street vs. parking lot) protecting the integrity of the dining area. … In addition to the safety measures, we have put in place, our approval criteria also precludes on –street dining on streets where the posted speed limit exceeds 30mph and parklets on streets where the posted speed limit exceeds 25mph.”
And expanded outdoor dining may stick around in Pasadena. At a June 14 budget study session, Transportation Director Lauran Cornejo said “The restaurateurs saw a benefit to them and we thought if we could keep those permanently, we would be able to do so. So that is our intention.”
However, parking in Pasadena is limited and as Altadena resident Ted Jorgenson pointed out the city needs to also address the limited number of EV charging stations. “I drive an electric car and have difficulty finding an open charge station, especially in old Pasadena,” he said.
From a restaurateur’s perspective, the outdoor dining experiment has not only saved many a business, but it has also enhanced the overall dining experience for everyone who enjoys al fresco. But not everyone agrees that expanded outdoor dining should stick around now that the state has relaxed most COVID-19 restrictions.
“All of my local residents, that’s what they used to pull in and pull out,” business owner Heidi Miller told Laguna Beach Independent. “It’s serving only one use but it’s taking away a use from dozens of other businesses.”
In the Bay Area city of Walnut Creek, business owners feel parklets are blocking patrons from clearly seeing their storefronts.
“As a small specialty boutique on Main Street, I don’t have my front anymore, and my front is everything,” Tamara Bartlett, who owns a clothing store, told KPIX 5, the local CBS affiliate. “It’s my marketing. It’s my visibility. It’s you being able to drive by and see a pretty pink shirt in the window.”