Outdoor dining may continue after pandemic is over

Area cities consider options that helped many restaurants survive coronavirus

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

WHITTIER — Outdoor dining has become an effective tool to lure customers back to restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic that forced most businesses that served to change the way they operated.

Perhaps no city in Southeast Los Angeles County handled that change as well as Whittier, which turned its uptown merchants district into the Greenleaf Promenade, closing Greenleaf Avenue to vehicular traffic for two blocks and allowing bars and restaurants to expand out onto sidewalks with pedestrians forced to walk down streets that used to be filled with cars.

The innovative measures threw life-saving blankets to eateries banned from serving food indoors before efficient vaccines were developed.

Makeshift tents with metal and wood frames popped up on streets, restaurant owners and staff donned face protective equipment and servers took orders while diners sat at tables socially distanced from fellow customers.

Due to the economic success the temporary programs brought to restaurateurs, commercial landlords and municipalities, many area cities are poised to incorporate permanent regulations for outdoor dining as a positive holdover from the pandemic.

A patchwork of initiatives would require changes in zoning laws and let restaurants use parking lots, sidewalks and curbside areas for serving food and drinks outdoors to customers.

Whittier was one of the first in the region to pass an emergency program that allowed restaurants and retailers to build temporary outdoor facilities, albeit at reduced capacity in the initial months.

As infection rates spiked and plunged last summer, the city developed a multi-pronged approach with local stakeholders that called for the closure of two blocks along Greenleaf Avenue, and on July 6 opened the Greenleaf Promenade, an outdoors walking venue furnished with barricades dotted with wooden dining frames built by participating storefronts.

Despite its mandated closure last winter, Whittier Business Development Manager Katie Galvin-Surbatovic said the program was so successful that the City Council has extended its stay until Oct. 15, when results from a survey of business owners, commercial landlords and residents to be conducted within two weeks are analyzed.

“Now the City Council is looking to see what options would improve the restaurants and business experience for owners and customers,” Galvin-Surbatovic said. “With the promenade in place, some of the questions would be:  Would you like to have it permanent or only seasonally? It will be very interesting to hear from these groups.”

The surveys will be conducted using the city’s business association social media accounts in Facebook, Twitter and handing out paper forms.

In line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to reopen shops and offices at full indoor capacity starting June 15, Galvin-Surbatovic said the city would be proactive in enhancing the outdoor dining experience.

Currently, restaurants cannot attend more than 50% of its customers inside a dining room.

The changes would outlast deadlines imposed by the state as the pandemic emergency is eventually lifted later this year, if no other serious outbreaks or new infection waves are reported.

All outdoor dining structures should be accessible for people with wheelchairs, in compliance with federal disability laws.

In the long run, any zoning changes for outdoor dining would have to add costs of security personnel and enhanced parking locations, since they are not holdovers from the pandemic, Galvin-Surbatovic said.

In Downey, a city known for its trendy restaurants, Councilman Sean Ashton said he wants to see some of the fixtures the city embraced to ease outdoor dining permanent, especially targeting the shops along Downey Avenue.

Emergency outdoor dining permits are free in Downey.

“I was hoping to bring it up at the next council meeting to start with getting input from the downtown district,” Ashton said. “If it is viewed as a positive, then maybe in July we could have something formally on the agenda,”

Last week, the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency issued a revised set of standards that would permit employees to work unmasked in small indoor settings if all have been vaccinated, they have provided records from the vaccine cards to employers and all customers also have been vaccinated.

If doubts persist about customers without vaccinations, all staff would have to continue wearing facemasks. Customers also would be required to stay socially distanced until at least July 31.

Cal/OSHA still mandates workers to be masked if they work at massive sports settings with more than 5,000 attendants, and to stay six feet apart from customers.

Huntington Park authorized temporary outdoor dining with permits that called for storage and removal of all furniture at the end of each business day starting last July. Restaurant owners were have barricades in place at eating slots in sidewalks, required clean and neat areas at all times and social distancing among food servers and customers, who had to wear facemask at all times except when eating.

Restaurants  had to submit a site plan layout, proof of liability insurance, a waiver and release of liability for the city to occupy public spaces and a letter from the landlord agreeing to the new plan.

Outdoor operations run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and area eateries must follow health protocols issued by the L.A. County Department of Public Health, usually attached to each city’s permit application. Sidewalk temporary permits costs restaurants $250.

South Gate introduced its temporary outdoor dining program at no cost for the restaurants, with the caveat of naming the city as insured for liabilities up to $1 million, and with the outdoor dimensions drawn in the permit’s application.

If an establishment wanted to serve liquor or alcoholic beverages with food outdoors, the city may require copies of the license issued by the state’s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.

Bell passed a temporary outdoor dining area program last August in part to cushion the lack of fiscal support from the city, which faced its own fiscal debacle of 20 to 30% in lost revenues.

The measure encouraged “the maximization of outdoor dining opportunities in appropriate areas” and “promoted the economic survival of its restaurants and hospitality businesses,” according to the ordinance signed by former Mayor Ali Saleh.

Paramount approved an al fresco outdoor dining program that required applicants to provide workers’ compensation insurance of $1 million per case and $1 million for city coverage until further notice.

In May, the state’s Economic Development Department report tallied 205,000 workers employed in the restaurants industry on April 2020, 86,600 less than on April 2021, when 291,600 were recorded. The figure meant a 42.2% employment gain from last year.

Pico Rivera implemented its Shop and Dine program and linked a list of local restaurants to its website with addresses and phone numbers to make outdoor reservations or for takeout.  Bell Gardens developed a free outdoor dining plan with an encroachment permit issued by the community development and public works departments.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger also endorsed the idea of making al fresco dining permanent in private parking lots and parklets, she told KNX 1070 news radio.

“We want the county to help those who signed up, under the temporary program, to make their outdoor dining setups permanent,” she said.

Gov. Newsom announced last week that restaurants can continue to sale drinks to go, and onsite to diners who purchase food and to deliver them to households. He called on municipalities to flex zoning laws that would expand the practice of letting restaurants set outdoor dining.