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City council members throughout Orange County are taking a hard look at outdoor dining programs created during the pandemic, with some questioning if cities should be providing public spaces for private businesses.

Most cities in Orange County implemented an outdoor dining program over the past year, allowing restaurants to expand onto nearby sidewalks, parking lots and even the street to accommodate more customers due to the limitations imposed on indoor dining. 

Debates are brewing for some of the larger outdoor dining projects, where cities like Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Orange shut down entire streets to open up new spaces for business. 

“If you as a restaurant or bar or business would like an outdoor capacity in the parking area that’s going to take up parking or sidewalk space and it’s on private property, I don’t have a problem with it as long as it’s seasonal,” said Fullerton City Councilman Fred Jung said in a Monday phone interview. 

The programs have started to come under more scrutiny in recent months, as residents and public officials question whether or not cities should be sacrificing public resources for the benefit of private businesses. 

“It was smart to do during the pandemic, but now I believe that public property, in particular a public road, should not be used for private benefit, it’s just a misuse of public funds,” Jung said.

Fullerton council members are set to discuss whether or not to extend their outdoor dining program on Wilshire Ave in Downtown Fullerton at their next council meeting on Sept. 21 according to the city calendar.

Jung said he thought the program made sense when it was last approved by the council in March of this year, but there is no longer a need for it. 

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Carolyn Cavecche, president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, agreed with Jung, saying it was unclear if the increase in sales tax from the restaurants would be enough to offset giving up a street. 

“In Orange, they’ve closed down public streets … and with some guidelines they’re allowing restaurants to take over public property. That’s not good,” Cavecche said. “That’s different than just saying you can take part of the sidewalk or your parking lot.”

Currently, the city of Orange has re-opened the sections of Glassell Street and Chapman Ave. that were previously closed for the Orange International Street Fair, but the city plans to reinstate the program after the fair using just Glassell Street with no set end date as they study the issue. 

The council is expected to discuss the issue again in the coming months as city staff continue to study the issue and consider making the closure an ongoing seasonal program. 

While cities have started to lift their states of emergency, many have decided to keep their expanded outdoor dining programs around for at least the near future. 

[Read: Orange County Cities Begin Dropping COVID Emergency Declarations As Cases Soar]

Before Newport Beach terminated their local emergency on Jun. 22, they extended the outdoor dining permits to Sept. 6, and from there businesses can choose to file for an extension permit at no additional cost that would be reviewed individually going forward. 

The Laguna Niguel City Council opted for a similar move, ending their local emergency and extending the temporary use permits for outdoor dining in commercial centers in one vote at their July 20 meeting. 

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Huntington Beach has been one of the strongest supporters of outdoor dining, shutting down portions of Main Street for over a year, and the city council is set to discuss extending that closure through the end of the year at their Sept. 7 meeting.

HB City Councilman Mike Posey, who originally proposed closing down Main Street, said it’s tough to balance outdoor dining, parking and general access to public streets.

“There’s some validity to that, as the pandemic restrictions are lifted, that the necessity is probably running its course, and I did say when I brought it forward originally that the outdoor dining would have a short lifespan,” Posey said in a Tuesday phone interview.

But, Posey said, there still could be an opportunity for some outdoor dining.

“There’s probably an argument to be made to continue the closure of main street through the end of the year, but there’s also an opportunity to look at restaurants on private property,” he said.

In an interview on Tuesday, City Councilman Dan Kalmick said the outdoor dining on Main Street is part of an overhaul plan the city is creating to redesign downtown, and it could potentially wind up being permanent. 

“I think the council is going to spend some money to really improve that downtown experience. It’s easy to stay open in the summer with 4-5 million people walking by, but it’s about bringing the residents in during the off season to spend time in your business,” Kalmick said. “The outdoor dining will be a component of that, I think to start I’m supportive of keeping the second block closed and putting some effort into making it look really nice.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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