Culver City helps businesses maximize outdoor space

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Cycle Bar, a fitness club located on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, relocated 24 of its stationary bikes outdoors to comply with L.A. County public health orders for social distancing. Operating at half capacity, the health club currently occupies four outdoor parking spaces and offers four classes a day, seven days a week. (Photo by Cynthia Gibson)

By Cynthia Gibson, Contributing Writer

CULVER CITY — City officials and local business organizations have closed down streets and have issued outdoor permits to help restaurant and retail businesses expand operations and stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, while adhering to Los Angeles County health guidelines.

City staff worked closely with Culver City’s Downtown Business Association to develop a plan that would help business owners maximize their outdoor space through street closures and the issuing of temporary permits to expand outdoor operations.

The city closed the westbound side of Culver Boulevard from Duquesne Avenue to Canfield Avenue and Main Street between Culver Boulevard and the city limit south of Venice Boulevard in late July. The closure was implemented in six weeks, as opposed to the typical six months to one year that this type of change would have taken before COVID-19, said Elaine Gerety Warner, Culver City’s economic development project manager.

The city is also providing temporary permits to allow restaurants to use private parking lots and the adjacent public right-of-way for outdoor dining.

With these measures, Culver City joins other municipalities across the U.S. in making it easier for restaurants to expand outdoor dining during the coronavirus pandemic. The city, however, is also allowing other businesses to operate outdoors, including gyms, fitness centers and personal care services, as well as clothing stores and other retail stores.

The city developed its outdoor dining and retail program in accordance with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s reopening guidelines.

Downtown Business Association President Darrel Menthe praised city staff for their quick response in implementing these new rules.

“It’s so easy to drag your feet, especially when you’re working from home. Everyone thought it was really important and jumped on it,” Menthe said. “The only reason we didn’t get [the street] closed at the end of June was because we had to wait to have the equipment delivered.”

Bill Sasiela, co-owner of Piccalilli on Main Street, said the new zoning regulations give restaurants like his an opportunity to recover.

“If we get the expanded capacity and if we have people coming back out, then we’ve got a fighting chance,” Sasiela said. “But if any one of those were to go away, then it’s very tough to make it in the long term.”

The momentum that Piccalilli gained after opening Jan. 20 suddenly went away when the COVID-19 outbreak became serious in March, with revenue plummeting 50%.

Piccalilli closed on March 16 in order to comply with the county’s Safer-at-Home shutdown order, and implemented takeout and delivery service in early May. The restaurant reopened with limited socially distanced capacity at the end of May, but closed indoor dining after a surge of COVID-19 cases in late June.

Buoyed by the opportunity to increase outdoor dining capacity due to the street closures, Piccalilli’s owners have invested thousands of dollars in additional tables, chairs and outdoor heaters.

Non-restaurant businesses are also taking advantage of new outdoor retail rules. Steph Sklar-Mulcahy, who owns Cycle Bar, a fitness club located on Sepulveda Boulevard, moved 24 of her stationary bikes outside and placed them in four parking spots. Cycle Bar now operates at half capacity of pre-Covid-19 classes, with four classes per day for seven days a week.

Operating at reduced capacity has been a tough pill to swallow and is not sustainable for Sklar-Mulcahy over the long term, she said. Before having to shut down in March, she spent $8,000 to upgrade the studio with a new air filtration system and other safety measures meant to protect instructors and customers.

Sklar-Mulcahy is grateful that she can keep her doors open and keep Cycle Bar’s members engaged and going strong. She also credits the Culver City Chamber of Commerce for “bending over backwards and being such a great resource,” with events like a bi-weekly COVID-19 Business Roundtable and a “Back to Business” toolkit outlining additional public health protocols and sample reopening plans.

“I don’t know what I would have done without them because there’s been some situations where I just want to put my head down and cry,” Sklar-Mulcahy said. “This is my livelihood. I’ve worked so hard to build this business up. … Failure is not an option for me. I have to make this work.”