Los Angeles County is seeking input from local business owners on its effort to create a permanent outdoor dining program in the unincorporated areas, a move that’s garnered support from local and regional business organizations.
The first L.A. County Outdoor Listening Session webinar, which is being hosted by the county’s departments of Regional Planning, Public Works and Economic Opportunity, is set to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday, according to a message from county officials.
There will be two subsequent webinars, which will offer a chance for community feedback, an overview of the proposals, a look at the existing rules and the resources for business owners, according to a flier promoting the sessions.
Restaurants currently can operate outdoor dining using an interim process with the county after the COVID-19-related emergency order expired at the end of last month, according to officials.
The Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce supported the move to a more permanent solution in a statement Wednesday that also acknowledged the prior investment many restaurants made to make outdoor dining work for them, expressing appreciation to the county looking for ways that restaurants can continue to utilize that going forward.
“Everyone knows that one of the hardest-hit industries in the pandemic were restaurants. They needed to quickly adapt to ensure they were compliant and able to operate,” said Ivan Volschenk, president and CEO of the SCV Chamber of Commerce. “We’re very pleased with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for adopting the community input sessions to bring a permanent outdoor-dining program to fruition. Restaurants spent countless amounts of money to stay compliant, and this brings them one step closer to ensuring their investments have paid off. An end to the uncertainty over outdoor dining will help them plan for the future.”
To help solicit input from residents, the county also created a survey for brick-and-mortar restaurant owners and managers, as well as a separate questionnaire for residents and other types of retail businesses.
Francisco Velasquez, manager of The Local, a popular bar and restaurant on The Old Road, said the restaurant utilized outdoor dining during the pandemic. While the restaurant also has a patio area it utilizes, he noted the restaurant also has to be mindful of the rules and regulations for the restaurant’s landlord.
“That would be good,” Velasquez said of more permanent rules, “but at the same time, it’s about the (rules from the) shopping center’s owner or management, because we are right at the entrance of the shopping center.”
The Los Angeles chapter of the California Restaurant Association was encouraging its members to take part in the survey, and even has a correlating campaign for the city of Los Angeles, “Keep L.A. Al Fresco,” as city leadership there is looking at similar changes.
“What’s interesting is, during COVID, we saw the benefits of outdoor dining, but the stories were just anecdotal. It was just stories,” said Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs at the California Restaurant Association. However, now her association cites data that demonstrates how, during the pandemic, the increased outdoor dining opportunities that West Coast restaurants had more of due to having less inclement weather helped restaurants survive at a much higher rate, she said.
There’s also a webinar on the proposals scheduled for 3 p.m. both on April 20 and May 2.
L.A. County 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger applauded the effort in a statement Wednesday that encouraged stakeholders who live and work outside of city limits in the Santa Clarita Valley to share their input.
Barger previously authored two outdoor-dining motions — in 2020, she helped establish a temporary outdoor dining program with “fast-tracked approvals for restaurants,” and a second motion in August that extended all conditional use permits issued to restaurants in unincorporated communities for 18 months.
“Restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic and are still struggling to get their footing, so every table counts,” Barger said in a statement via email. “Designing a permanent solution can be a lifeline for many who can’t afford to lose the revenue that outdoor operations yield. I’m pleased that a dedicated team of county professionals from the Department of Economic Opportunity, Regional Planning, Public Works and Public Health are committed to listening to the community’s input as they design a permanent solution. I encourage the public to participate so our county’s permanent outdoor dining plan is balanced and reflects the perspective of those who live and work in our unincorporated areas.”
The future changes wouldn’t impact most restaurants in Santa Clarita, which are located within city limits and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of City Hall.
For its part, city of Santa Clarita officials said they don’t have plans to review their policies or to change regulations to go back to what they were during COVID-19, according to Jason Crawford, director of community development for the city of Santa Clarita.
“We allow outdoor dining across the city,” he noted Wednesday, adding that the one area where it’s allowed in the public right of way is in Old Town Newhall, on Main Street.
“For the most part, restaurants who want to have outdoor dining have a way to do it and we want to work with the restaurants to help them accomplish that,” he added.
For more information on the county’s review process, contact the Office of Small Business via phone at 844-432-4900 or email at [email protected]. Anyone can register for the webinar at bit.ly/LACoOutdoorDining.