Outdoor dining in Orange County’s downtown areas that became commonplace during the pandemic may not be going away and could in fact become a permanent fixture of cities in the future.
During the pandemic, cities across the county facilitated ways for restaurants to stay in business by allowing them to set up tables in their parking lots and patios when COVID-19 concerns and public safety regulations prevented them from serving people inside.
The result was a transformation of some public spaces from car dominated streets to walkable community areas.
And, as over 1.6 million people have now been vaccinated in the county, officials in several cities are considering whether to continue to allow businesses to operate in public locations with outdoor dining’s newfound success that has helped restaurants stay afloat during an economic crunch.
“The outdoor space helped immensely,” said Pamela Waitt, president of the Orange County Restaurant Association. “(Restaurants) all want to keep their outdoor space and it’s universal to the customers as well. They love it.”
Waitt said she hopes cities continue to allow dining outside. Many cities are looking at doing so and how best to mitigate the challenges that come with it.
Newport Beach Extends Outdoor Dining Permits
On June 8, Newport Beach council members voted 6-0 to extend temporary use permits that allowed businesses to operate on public property through Sept. 6.
Councilman Noah Blom recused himself from the vote because of a conflict of interest.
In May last year, the City Council unanimously adopted an emergency ordinance to allow places of business and worship to use parking lots and sidewalks for activities through temporary use permits.
About 114 businesses and institutions have made use of these permits, according to a city staff report.
“A good chunk of them have already chosen to move inside their regular brick and mortar operation,” Makana Nova, a senior planner with the city, said during the council meeting earlier this month.
After Sept. 6, businesses can apply for a limited term use permit to continue to be outside for less than 90 days or up to one year.
The permits would be reviewed on an individual basis and would consider parking, location and land use compatibility. The fees for the permits would be waived, costing the city $200,000 in lost revenue, according to the staff report on the agenda.
A major challenge to outdoor dining in Newport Beach is parking, Nova said at the meeting.
The extension would allow for a bridge for a more permanent solution as the city does a study and an analysis of parking, which could facilitate a more permanent open-air dining experience in the city.
Councilwoman Diane Dixon said the future of such dining in Newport is yet to be determined and that she supports it.
“Many restaurants have been able to accommodate their outdoor dining facilities in their own private parking lots, which is ideal. The real conundrum will be about our public spaces or our narrow sidewalks oftentimes,” Dixon said.
Fullerton to Look at Permanent Outdoor Dining in Downtown Area
Like in Newport Beach, the Fullerton City Council decided in May 2020 to relax outdoor eating rules and allow businesses to use public spaces.
According to an agenda report, over 60 permits have been issued in Fullerton for open-air dining and the city has closed off alleys in the downtown area to facilitate outdoorsy uses for surrounding businesses.
According to that same report, the downtown area has experienced a rise in criminal activity, including fights and trash accumulation in the past month.
Some of the closed alleyways have blocked off police cars from driving through them to assist security staff and it has also made it difficult for the fire department to respond to emergency medical calls.
On June 1, Fullerton council members directed staff to open up some of the closed alleys in downtown to address those concerns.
Councilman Ahmed Zahra said at the meeting he would like the city to study how to expand dining in public spaces that considers safety and bike pathways — which staff said they’re already looking into at the request of the council.
“It sets us apart from other cities and revitalizes our downtown in ways that we couldn’t imagine before COVID,” he said. “We need to make sure that we hopefully bring back an item and sort of a larger study on where we can expand.”
Orange to Discuss Extending Open-Air Dining in Paseo
In July 2020, Orange city officials closed Glassell Street in the Orange Plaza Paseo for outside seating. In December, the City Council voted to continue the closure of the 100 blocks of North and South Glassell Street until state or local restrictions end or by council direction.
Many Orange residents have asked city officials to extend the street closure in the Paseo or to keep it permanently closed. While the restaurants on the shuttered portion of Glassell Street have thrived during the pandemic, businesses on adjacent streets have suffered due to increased traffic flow and the lack of outdoor eating options there.
“There is no doubt that the Paseo was a big success and a strong pivot for our city to help struggling businesses, but it was done in a time of emergency,” Orange City Council member Arianna Barrios said. “Without a full hearing, review, public comment and environmental review we run the risk of creating a public taking of land without due process.”
The council has not yet had a public discussion to decide whether or not to reopen Glassell Street. At the June 8 meeting, Barrios requested that the council discuss future plans for dining outside and restaurant operations after June 15 in a special meeting within the next two weeks.
Laguna Beach Extends Open-Air Dining in Downtown for Three Years
At the start of the pandemic, Laguna Beach did not have a central downtown area for residents to dine and shop, according to city officials. However, after the coronavirus pandemic forced city officials to close streets to allow patrons eat outside, the promenade — a parking lot converted to a walkable town center filled with restaurant patios — was formed.
Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf said the promenade will remain active with street closures for the next three years, due to a coastal development permit.
At a May 18 meeting, the City Council unanimously voted to award a contract to a design firm to address parking, traffic and design concerns for the promenade to possibly become a permanent fixture in the city.
Council member Peter Blake strongly supports keeping all outdoor eating operations in the city active due to customer preference.
“I would imagine that we are going to open the restaurants back up again, but everyone is still going to want to eat outdoors,” Blake said. “This councilman will definitely be moving toward maintaining all of our outdoor seating, whether that’s parking lots or any space that we’ve taken up to create outdoor dining.”
On Jan. 12, the council extended its temporary use permits for all other outdoor dining through the end of the year. After December, the panel will consider further extending the closures, which take up some parking lots and street parking space.
“In Laguna, if you take parking away, then you have to replace it somewhere else,” Kempf said. “We’re going to have to figure out what our policies are going to be moving forward, but I don’t think we are quite ready for that yet.”
Other Cities’ Plans for Open-Air Meals
In September 2020, Huntington Beach officials voted to extend certain street closures for dining in public spaces and indicated a discussion should be had on whether the option should be made permanent.
“It is up to the restaurant to decide where their focus will be, based on their resources and preferences,” said Catherine Jun, who serves as the assistant to the city manager, in an interview last week. “Huntington Beach is a business friendly city and will always try to facilitate outdoor dining for restaurants, if they request it.”
In March, the City Council directed staff to look at any zoning or parking requirements adjustments that might be necessary to facilitate such dining.
On Tuesday, the council held a study session on the future of open air dining and parking where staff recommended a consultant be hired to look at parking standards in the city.
In Irvine, outdoor eating options will continue after June 15 and Mayor Farrah Khan called on city staff to look into allowing it permanently.
In Placentia, city officials have let restaurant and business owners decide how to operate with COVID-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic. Sante Fe Street is the only road closed in the city for outdoor meals, and while Placentia Mayor Pro Tem Chad Wenke said the City Council is currently planning on reopening the street to resume traffic flow, the topic will come back to the council for further discussion.
In Santa Ana, the temporary standards for open-air dining will continue for a year.
“In the meantime, staff is going to work on putting together some standards that the council would then consider at a future date for possibly making some of the outdoor dining permanent,” Councilman Phil Bacerra said in a phone interview.
One challenge, Bacerra said, is where you can serve alcohol, which the State’s Alcohol Beverage Control department was cooperative about during the pandemic and that he is unsure if that will continue.
“That’s going to have a major impact on how outdoor dining proceeds because a lot of these establishments have alcohol that they sell and how does that work,” he said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.