San Diego council clears way for expanded outdoor dining amid ban on indoor service due to coronavirus
City Council emergency ordinance will waive fees and accelerate approval process for restaurateurs looking to expand dining to streets, parking lots and sidewalks
With restaurateurs enduring yet another shutdown of indoor dining service, the San Diego City Council on Tuesday extended a lifeline that will allow them to expand seating out onto streets, parking areas and sidewalks without having to pay any special fees.
While Mayor Kevin Faulconer had issued an executive order a week earlier to jumpstart the new al fresco program in the wake of new pandemic restrictions, the council action officially codifies the order and expands it well beyond private parking lots and sidewalks to also include street closures and seating in parking areas in front of businesses.
The effect of the new temporary regulations for eateries and shops is to not only waive required fees, which can be as much as $5,000 in some instances, but also streamline processing times, which can sometimes be months. City officials hope to reduce that to anywhere from hours to several days, and development services staff said Tuesday that they expected some permits to be issued that same day.
“We have over 4,000 restaurants and before the pandemic they employed 55,000 people,” Faulconer said during a news conference held earlier in the day at a Convoy Street parking lot where the Tofu House has been able to put enough tables and chairs under white canopies to seat 45. “This expanded outdoor dining opportunity will be available to every single one of them. This is the kind of help and support needed to keep San Diegans employed, to keep our businesses safe, and make sure that city government is helping.”
The council action comes just a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a new order requiring 30 counties in the state, including San Diego, to shut down indoor operations for a large number of businesses and organizations, from churches to salons and gyms, by Wednesday morning. Six days earlier, local restaurants, bars and family entertainment businesses, including movie theaters, learned they, too, had to cease indoor operations.
While the council action taken Tuesday will not provide relief for businesses beyond restaurants and shops, Faulconer said that the city already is exploring options for allowing outdoor operations for other entities no longer allowed to do business indoors. Council members also urged city staff to find a way to enable barbershops, salons and others to operate outdoors.
“We are looking at our ability as a city and county to also provide that relief and that safety to transition to outdoor environments,” Faulconer said. “Ever since the statewide order came down, we had numerous calls from other businesses saying ‘Mr. Mayor, can you help us, is there a way we can operate outdoors safely, too?’ so we are exploring all those options.”
Ever since the mid-March shutdown of businesses in connection with the widening coronavirus pandemic, restaurants and shops have struggled to generate revenues, many of them pivoting to delivery and curbside sales. By mid-June, they were allowed to resume indoor operations — although at much reduced capacities — only to learn a week ago that they would have to once again cease doing business indoors.
While many are taking advantage of patio dining, it remains challenging to make a profit, much less break even, they say. Not so, however, for Joon-Suk Kim, who says his new parking lot operation has allowed the Tofu House to regain all of the 45 seats that had been used inside the restaurant before the pandemic.
“As soon as we started outside, we were very busy,” he said. “We are making a profit. Our sales went up 70 percent.”
Elyse Lowe, Development Services director, estimates that the city should be able to process permits for various outdoor operations for 500 to 600 restaurants and stores. As of a month ago, the city already had received 35 proposals, mostly for full street closures, from businesses in Pacific Beach, La Jolla, North Park, South Park and Hillcrest. The city has created a special website for the program that businesses and the public can access.
Of the $300,000 that the City Council is allocating for the program, some $45,000 will be set aside for outreach efforts, with the focus being on small, minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses.
The city is partnering with the Strategic Alliance of San Diego Ethnic Chambers of Commerce to assist with that effort. The alliance is a coalition of the Asian Business Association of San Diego, the Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“We must not forget about our minority-owned businesses in disadvantaged communities who have been disproportionately denied financial assistance and many of whom will have to bear a greater burden through this,” said Donna DeBerry, CEO of the Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce. “With today’s proposal we have the chance to make San Diego’s economic recovery inclusive and equitable for our historically underserved communities and economic corridors. For many, staying open now could mean saving those businesses.”
While a number of local business districts already are working with the city on possible weekend street closures for expanded outdoor dining, the only special event permits issued so far have been for the Gaslamp Quarter — along Fifth Avenue — and in Little Italy — along a portion of India Street. The East Village Association had hoped to launch a street closure along a small part of J Street, while the North Park Main Street Association has been pushing for closing a segment of 30th Street.
The new citywide ordinance will remain in effect for 45 days, after which it can be extended for an additional 10 months and 15 days.
— Lori Weisberg is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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