Outdoor dining time frame remains up in the air

Customers sit behind K-rails as Main Street is closed to increase outside seating for restaurants in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

As more and more COVID-19 restrictions are eased, many local restaurant owners are looking toward what the future holds for outdoor dining. 

Last year when restaurants were told to shut down indoor operations, the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board, which oversees restaurants’ alcohol licenses, updated regulations under an emergency order, allowing businesses to serve alcoholic beverages and food on adjacent sidewalks, parking lots and in city streets. 

Soon after, restaurants began a widespread street takeover, with hundreds of thousands of tents cropping up around the state, including many here in the Santa Clarita Valley. 

Since then, restaurants have gone the extra mile, spending both time and money to make these outdoor setups special, with most investing in professional tents, outdoor furniture, heaters, fans and more to create an inviting atmosphere for customers. 

Now, a new piece of California legislation is making its way through legislative committees and could pave the way toward making some of these changes permanent. 

Senate Bill 314, also known as the Bar and Restaurant Recovery Act, would give more flexibility to the ABC, as well as reform restaurant regulations and permitting processes, making these outdoor seating expansions a more permanent option.  
If passed, the bill would allow drinking alcohol in streets, parking lots, alleys and sidewalks to be a permanent practice, and from there, local governments may decide on zones where carrying open containers of alcohol is allowed. 

The bill comes as the Los Angeles City Council is working toward making its Al Fresco program, which is similar to the city of Santa Clarita’s Eat Local program, permanent, in an effort that Alex Comisar, a spokesman for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, said remains ongoing.  

The motion would involve a streamlined permitting process and ensuring that outdoor seating doesn’t obstruct public sidewalks and access for the disabled. 

The city of Santa Clarita, however, plans to conclude its own program once the public health restrictions once again allow restaurants to operate indoors at 100% capacity, according to city of Santa Clarita spokeswoman Carrie Lujan. 

Lujan added that to extend the program on a more permanent basis would take some logistical work based on traffic safety and other demands, as well as require City Council approval.  

SCV reaction 

Restaurants on Main Street in Newhall took over parking spots, expanding their outdoor setups for what owners agree has been an extremely helpful measure in allowing them to recoup their losses due to COVID-19. 

“Everyone is in a state of recovery,” Newhall Press Room co-owner Charles Potter said. “With how many times we had to start and stop the business due to restrictions, the more we can make people feel comfortable, the more space we have to distance tables, will allow everyone to safely eat out, allow businesses to recover and provide opportunity for our employees. I also think this will drive more door traffic and bring customers to other local businesses.”  

While Cherie McGraham, owner of Smokehouse on Main, understands the city’s logic in removing the program once restaurants reach 100% capacity, she hopes there can be some sort of compromise.  

“If we’re back to 100% capacity, we don’t need the full outdoor, but you are still going to have people that are worried about being inside, and they should have a right to choose outside,” McGraham said, adding that even now that indoor dining is an option, she still has customers who are choosing to sit outside as a precaution. “And I get that. They should have that right, and we should have that right also to help recoup not just our year’s worth of losses, but not losing people because we don’t have outdoor dining, because that will happen if they’re not comfortable.”  

For these reasons and more, having a potential to make this outdoor setup permanent would be huge for restaurants, according to Daniel Otto, co-owner and executive chef at Old Town Junction. 

“A lot of times people don’t spec out a patio when building a restaurant,” Otto said. “There’s a lot of people who have had to quickly diversify their business and adapt. The city has been amazing. Santa Clarita has really helped us with letting us be proactive with that and adapt.”  

In continuing the program, Otto said it would allow these restaurants to continue staying afloat as they recoup losses while returning to normal. 

While the program has received positive feedback from restaurants and diners, other local business owners haven’t been as thrilled. 

“It has not been a positive impact for me,” said a Main Street shop owner, who wished to remain unnamed. “The city hasn’t been friendly for retail. It’s been friendly to restaurants.”  

With the current setup, Main Street is no longer as pedestrian-friendly, the shop owner added, meaning their business has seen less foot traffic than it would normally. 

The shop owner looks forward to when things can return to normal, in the hopes that everyone can succeed.  

“We’re really happy that the restaurants are open, we’re really happy that the restrictions are lifting and we really hope that you know by summer, everything is wide open,” the shop owner added.

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