Fullerton officials have agreed to allow restaurants to serve patrons outdoors for another six months, a move business owners said was much needed to maintain revenue and keep customers safe.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Collegiate News Service, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Collegiate News Service Editor Vik Jolly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The City Council last Tuesday voted unanimously to extend outdoor dining on either private property or public right-of-way with some council members saying the uncertainty of the pandemic and state mandates may require businesses to continue outdoor dining.
Although the vote was unanimous, some council members said there should be changes and additional regulations are warranted. Restaurant owners who attended the council meeting expressed their desire to be able to continue serving patrons outdoors.
“As a 35-year professional musician, I really want to recommend that not only do we have outdoor dining but we also have live music in those outdoor areas,” Ron Kobayashi, a jazz pianist at Les Amis restaurant, told the council before the vote. “Keep art alive, keep revenue pumping into the city and keep citizens happy and enjoying their time.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fullerton municipal code allowed for outdoor dining as an extension to a business’s operations. According to a city staff report, the city “grandfathered” and allowed businesses to use the existing outdoor dining areas without amending their permits, while newer businesses had to amend their permits.
When California restricted indoor dining during COVID-19, Fullerton issued more than 60 permits to allow for outdoor dining and retail operations. According to the agenda report, the outdoor dining program was set to end Sept. 30.
Simon Collier, the owner of The Olde Ship Fullerton, voiced his concern about closing down outdoor dining and live music. “My customers are scared, and they want to sit outside,” Collier told the council. “I have immunocompromised people who want to sit outside, please allow it.”
Greg Pfost, the city’s temporary director of community and economic development, enumerated the pros and cons of extending the outdoor dining program.
The benefits of discontinuing the program include placing all businesses on an equal footing with other businesses that have struggled during the pandemic, he told the council during the meeting.
Other pros of discontinuing the strategy include reducing staff costs associated with code enforcement, restoring access to public spaces, improving public safety, addressing building occupation concerns, and reducing trash production, Pfost said.
However, the uncertainty of the pandemic and state mandates may require businesses to continue offering outdoor dining. The city may suffer a loss in revenue, and the loss of attraction of outdoor dining in the downtown area, according to the staff report.
Pfost added that the extension would allow enough time for businesses to dismantle their outdoor dining or decide if they want to apply for a continuation of the program under normal regulatory conditions and allow outdoor dining to continue through the holiday season.
Mayor Bruce Whittaker was in favor of extending the program.
“They’re (outdoor dining areas) wildly popular and they’re very successful and so I wouldn’t like to see anything that would dampen what we have begun in Fullerton,” said Whitaker.
Council member Ahmad Zahra pointed to economic benefits that would warrant a continuation but recommended a framework for permanent outdoor dining.
Staff recommended that businesses apply for outdoor dining permits by Oct. 30. If a business does not obtain a permit, staff recommended that the business discontinue and remove its existing outdoor dining area by Nov. 7.
While he did not oppose the extension, Council member Fred Jung cited public safety and overcrowding as reasons why the city should not continue to allow outdoor dining. He instead urged the council to create something more regulated.
“Outdoor dining served as a much needed life line for some of them (these businesses) and I would not want to deny them that,” Jung said. “It certainly needs to be continued but the form it’s in right now — I could not support it because it’s a free-for-all. There are bad actors that come into any space that isn’t regulated and those bad actors are giving everyone that’s doing the right thing a terrible name.”
Public safety issues that have arisen due to outdoor dining include an overcrowding of patrons in areas, as well as fire hazards related to certain outdoor installations businesses might have.
As part of the extension of outdoor dining, city staff identified certain elements to address with businesses, including maintaining occupancy levels, limiting alcohol to only be sold alongside food in outdoor dining areas, trash disposal upkeep, and ability for the city to revoke a business’s outdoor dining area if dangerous situations arise.