Irvine City Council members unanimously approved a plan to let restaurants apply for permanent expanded outdoor dining at their Tuesday night meeting. 

Cities across Orange County began outdoor dining programs after the pandemic kicked off nearly two years ago. Through numerous interviews, public health experts have said eating outside was a lot less risky than indoors, where the COVID-19 virus can spread easily – especially in the face of the Omicron variant. 

A total of 65 restaurants have taken advantage of the city’s outdoor dining program since it was implemented shortly after the pandemic began in March 2020, spread across 23 different commercial centers. Those were all approved under a temporary approval process with no specific end date set. 

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Under the new plan, city staff would begin looking at any restaurants interested in permanently hanging onto their outdoor expansion and reviewing the impacts to parking, pedestrian access and more zoning issues, according to a city staff presentation. 

So far, 10 restaurants have already expressed interest. 

For restaurants where the expansion can fit without disrupting any of those other regulations, owners can submit directly for building permits, according to the city staff report. 

But restaurants that have a conflict will need a customized approval process that would require more work. 

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Council members were supportive of the measure, with Councilman Anthony Kuo asking for city staff to consider the impacts on businesses who share parking with a restaurant in their review. 

“I think this is a good opportunity to help them (businesses) bridge the gap,” said Councilwoman Tammy Kim. 

Throughout Orange County, other cities have been wrestling with the same issue for months. 

[Read: Orange County Cities Continue Looking to Outdoor Dining During Pandemic]

Last November, Laguna Beach city council members decided to extend their outdoor dining procedures through the end of 2023, with plans to charge businesses a fee for the public space they take up. 

That same month, Costa Mesa city council members decided to extend their program through the end of 2022, and asked staff to return with plans to incentivize and allow outdoor dining to continue into the future. 

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Other cities have chosen a different route, either extending the outdoor dining on a more limited basis or instigating other restrictions. 

In Orange, the city council decided to create a seasonal outdoor dining program at Orange Plaza Paseo that reopened Glassell Street for the first time in over a year and provided businesses an outdoor extension part time. 

Other cities like Newport Beach, Fullerton and Huntington Beach have reevaluated and extended the outdoor dining programs every couple of months, allowing business owners a heads up before the program is discussed. 

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

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