• Wed. Jan 19th, 2022


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A Push to Make Outdoor Dining Spaces Permanent

Good morning.

Across California, restaurants have taken over parking lots, sidewalks and streets for outdoor dining as the state has crawled back toward normalcy.

In some places, that has meant a couple of extra tables lined up along a curb. For other restaurants with more space nearby, it has meant setting up tents and more permanent barriers, like trellises or big planters, to add a little ambience to what had previously been unromantic patches of asphalt.

And across the state, diners, restaurant operators and city officials have all begun asking why they didn’t do this before.

State leaders have taken notice.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would pave the way for the temporary outdoor dining, alcohol sale and parklet regulations that are in place to become permanent. It passed the State Senate unanimously on Tuesday.

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the relaxed regulations through the end of the year, bridging the gap until the proposed new legislation would go into effect.

I talked with Scott Wiener, a state lawmaker from San Francisco who is a co-author of the outdoor dining bill, about why it’s important. Here is our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Tell me a little about the mechanics of this legislation.

Under California law — this is pre-Covid — a restaurant or bar, in order to serve outside, would basically have to expand their liquor permit. It could be a lengthy, difficult process, with appeals.

During the pandemic, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control issued emergency guidance that said if a city allowed it, they could expand alcohol sales outside.

That’s been great, not just for bars or restaurants, but patrons like it. And it activates public spaces.

Our bill, Senate Bill 314, is what’s known as an urgency bill, meaning it gets enacted immediately if the governor signs it by September. And it would authorize the A.B.C. to extend these permits en masse for one year.

We’re hopeful the A.B.C. will do that. We’ve been working with them — they’ve been terrific in supporting these restaurants.

Under the state Constitution, only the A.B.C. has the power to grant or modify state liquor licenses. The Legislature still creates the rules under which A.B.C. issues licenses. This bill would give businesses extra time to submit applications, because a lot of these restaurants have made significant investments.

What do you think are some hurdles? For instance, are you concerned at all about the one-year grace period ending and a bunch of zoning fights starting?

There’s always going to be fighting. That’s the nature of local government.

I think the difference here is, What’s the baseline? If a city had come forward before the pandemic and said, “Let’s dramatically expand outdoor dining,” there would have been a lot of pushback. Like, “Whoa, what’s going to happen to the neighborhood? We need parking.”

This is not a mysterious unknown now. Not everybody likes it, but most people do. They love it.

And cities will go through their own local decision-making. In San Francisco, the mayor has proposed an ordinance to make the outdoor dining program permanent.

There’s going to be a process; there will be public participation. It’s starting from a place where they’ve been doing it for a year — it shifts the dynamic.

Why do you think this particular effort has gotten such widespread bipartisan support? Why is it so important to so many lawmakers?

One of the things I love about state government is there are a number of issues that are not partisan. I think this idea has incredibly broad public support, and it combines a number of things: support for small businesses, activating public spaces, creating vibrant neighborhoods.

Do you have a sense for how the math is working out?

In the short term, you have restaurants that have struggled in the past year, and also restaurants have made these investments. It’s going to take people time to figure out what they want in the long term.

Some people aren’t going to want to dine indoors for a while. As capacity moves more toward 100 percent, different restaurants are going to make different calculations.

Some of the outdoor spaces might go away on their own. A lot of them are going to be permanent, and they’re going to work well. I think we’re going to see over the next six to 12 months. We’ll gather a lot of information about what the public wants.

Are there concerns about addressing the physical safety of some of these spaces, like ones built into the street without permanent bollards or barriers?

I think cities are already looking at ways to promote public safety, and obviously restaurants are in favor of that. Those details are going to be worked out at the local level.

Are there any particular areas in San Francisco or the Bay more broadly that you think have been transformed in particularly nice or creative ways?

In the Castro, we saw these really strong relationships between restaurants and bars develop. Some of the gay bars will partner with the taqueria a few doors down, and they have large spaces, so you’ve been able to have a drink and a burrito and drag shows — it’s just a really festive environment. The Castro gay bars thought very creatively and made it work.