In June of 2020, as it became clear how significantly California's restaurants were going to be impacted by the pandemic even after the initial shutdowns were lifted, the Peninsula's municipalities began exploring how they could help restaurants in their communities survive. Across the Peninsula and the state, the solution to a ban on indoor dining took similar shape: bringing dining rooms outside.
That meant giving those restaurants adequate space. In San Carlos, the first city in San Mateo County to permit outdoor dining, city council members voted to close Laurel Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares, to cars, allowing restaurants a carefully controlled expansion into the road itself, according to Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan. Some businesses built neat, roofed parklets; others simply set up tables and chairs al fresco in the space directly in front of their storefronts, giving Laurel Street something of a European feel.
Unmasked diners eat outside by the strip of restaurants on University Avenue on June 27, 2020. Photo by Lloyd Lee.
"I go for walks frequently through the neighborhood and downtown to see how things are going, and… any given evening, families, friends and business people are gathering and enjoying a meal together (outside)," said Parmer-Lohan.
As in many communities, the closure has proved popular among both patrons and merchants, according to Parmer-Lohan. Among restauranteurs, it's perhaps more than popular: many see the flexibility they've been granted around outdoor dining as having essentially saved their businesses, according to Derek Schuette, general manager of Taurus Steakhouse, which sits along the 700 block of Laurel Street in San Carlos. Outdoor seating will remain a crucial part of Taurus's business for the foreseeable future, he thinks.
"I just think it's going to be the new normal for a while," Schuette said. "Even come June 15 when it's all set to open at 100%, there will be so many restauranteurs who simply cannot adhere to that, because we don't have the staff (to serve customers both indoors and out)."
Beyond that, Schuette said, a substantive portion of Taurus's clientele say they do not feel safe eating inside, and he does not believe that a general lifting of capacity restrictions will change their minds. And it's not just Taurus's clientele base: restaurants along Castro Street in Mountain View, also currently closed to vehicle traffic, are currently voicing the same concern, according to Mountain View Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Peter Katz. Plus, he said, many restaurants view their outdoor seating as something of an insurance policy against future shutdowns.
Pedestrians walk by Ristorante Don Giovanni and St. Stephen’s Green customers dining at outdoor tables placed on the street in downtown Mountain View on July 2, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
"The biggest fear that these businesses have is that they're going to gear up for something and then get told the rules are different," he said. "They've done that several times already, it's so extremely costly for them to pivot in that direction. It's not just… turn the lights off, turn the lights on."
In Mountain View, as San Carlos, the street closure has been popular with community members, too, Katz said: many of them have subsequently voiced their approval for a more permanent closure. The Chamber is in continual dialogue with its membership as well as city leaders regarding the closure of Castro Street and its tenure, according to Katz.
"The closing of Castro — or keeping it closed, if you will — is not a yes-no decision, either," he said. "In fact, if we are going to keep Castro closed, we have to invest in Castro."
That might mean additional lighting fixtures, seating or other infrastructure, Katz said; he named a roster of other variables the city and chamber membership are considering, including how a permanent or quasi-permanent closure of Castro Street might impact traffic patterns, parking supply and business for nearby retailers who are not in the restaurant business.
California Avenue, also currently closed to cars, might benefit from a similar kind of assessment, according to La Bodeguita del Medio Owner Michael Ekwall, who said the closure had been "a lifesaver" for his restaurant.
Diners eat at tables on the street along California Avenue in Palo Alto on June 25, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
"I would like to see Cal Ave really advance its aesthetic… if it was more attractive, it might be more of a draw, and a permanent closure might help that," Ekwall said, adding he knew the city was working under budget constraints and had other agenda items to address. "Cal Ave is only three blocks long. Imagine if you had a really beautiful median with trees — almost a park-like setting — that could really set off the neighborhood. It's not inexpensive, but I think that would be beneficial to the area and the community."
Still, like Katz, he knows city leaders will need to assess variables like traffic patterns and parking. And he knows not every business owner shares his opinion: some in the community have said they believe the closures have had an adverse impact on their businesses, including Peninsula Creamery's Rob Fischer and Mike Stone of Mollie Stone's Market, the Palo Alto Weekly previously reported.
"When you close the street and let one or two restaurants have the entire street, everyone else is kind of hung out to dry," Fischer said of the closure of University Avenue, another of Palo Alto's main thoroughfares, during an April city council meeting on the topic.
The fate of street closures like California Avenue, Castro Street and Laurel Street is something that must be considered through a long term lens, San Carlos's Parmer-Lohan said.
Laurel Street will remain closed to vehicle traffic through September; in the interim, there's much for the city to discuss. San Carlos City Council is in the middle of discussing its budget, which will likely include some funding for Laurel Street and the rest of downtown, according to Parmer-Lohan; it also expects to soon hear from a subcommittee assigned to Laurel Street's closure about what modifications might benefit the street.
Customers fill Bistro Vida’s outdoor tables for lunch in downtown Menlo Park on June 9, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.
"This is a long-term endeavor, not a short-term thing," she reiterated.
In Mountain View, the "first steps" toward assessing Castro Street's future are already being taken, according to Katz, in the form of surveys; community conversations and public hearings will soon follow. Given the "complexity of the issue, love for downtown and strong opinions" in Mountain View, there likely won't be a singular solution that makes "100% of people happy," he added. Still, the city "knows the gravity of these issues," Katz added, something he's encouraged by.
"There are so many stakeholders and variables (involved) that we all are going to have to make some adjustments. That's one thing the pandemic showed us — that we can adjust," he said.