Cities up and down the Midpeninsula are considering temporarily closing their downtown streets to traffic to give restaurants and other businesses more outdoor space to safely serve customers when they're allowed to reopen.
The cities, including Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City, San Carlos and San Mateo, are at various stages of decision-making: In a few scenarios, leaders are entertaining concrete proposals, while in others, grassroots community discussions haven't yet been formally taken up by elected officials.
For restaurants, additional seating and space to reassure diners that eating out is safe could mean the difference between surviving or folding during this next phase of the shutdown.
"Every seat outside would help," said Michael Ekwall, co-owner of La Bodeguita del Medio on California Avenue in Palo Alto. "Even at 50% capacity, it will be an incredible challenge to be profitable."
In new guidance that Gov. Gavin Newsom released on Tuesday, the state recommended that restaurants "prioritize" outdoor seating when their local jurisdictions meet the criteria for reopening. Newsom noted in a press conference that outdoor seating naturally allows for "greater distribution of airflow," while inside, ventilation could pose a potential risk.
"Restaurants can expand their outdoor seating, and alcohol offerings in those areas, if they comply with local laws and regulations," the guidance states.
The state isn't mandating specific capacity levels, but for many restaurants, reconfiguring their dining rooms to ensure tables are 6 feet apart will significantly reduce the number of people they can serve.
In Menlo Park, the idea of closing streets was sparked by a request from the owner of Cafe Zoe to use street parking to serve customers once the cafe is allowed to reopen. Council member Ray Mueller further proposed closing Santa Cruz Avenue and potentially other city streets to traffic. He worked with Council member Betsy Nash to bring forward a request on Tuesday night to temporarily close Santa Cruz and several side streets. They also proposed the city create a "streamlined permit process" to temporarily allow restaurants and retail stores to serve customers and sell goods in the closed streets and for restaurants to also use their designated off-street parking spaces to serve food and drinks.
In an interview before the meeting, Mueller said he hoped closing the streets would help people feel more comfortable patronizing local businesses.
"You want to allow that recovery to take place," he said.
The Menlo Park council members didn't take any action on the plan on Tuesday; City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson agreed to look at the traffic impacts and evaluate concerns raised by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District before bringing a more detailed plan back to the council at a later date, tentatively set for May 26. In a letter sent earlier that day, Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said the district saw "no significant challenges" to the proposed Santa Cruz Avenue closure pilot program so long as the city worked with the fire district to coordinate fire response and prevention plans, create a plan for potential safety problems, create emergency fire access points with removable bollards and other steps.
Mountain View Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga said city staff is "actively exploring" temporarily closing Castro Street to traffic, an idea that's drawn interest in the community over the years.
"The social distancing requirements of COVID-19 makes this an opportune time for us to try this concept," she wrote in an email. "Overall, we are looking at this COVID-19 situation as an opportunity to revisit many of the ways we operate.
In Los Altos, an informal working group of city staff, the Los Altos Village Association, Los Altos Property Owners Downtown, the Chamber of Commerce and interested citizens are discussing closing streets to traffic, according to City Manager Chris Jordan. The City Council is expected to discuss "options" at its May 26 meeting, Jordan said. A Change.org petition calling on Los Altos to close Main and State streets to cars has gathered nearly 700 signatures.
Redwood City is in the early stages of considering allowing restaurants and retail stores to use sidewalks, private parking lots and streets for outdoor dining and retail sales, including in downtown, Communications Manager Jennifer Yamaguma said.
"Staff are evaluating what a program might entail, balancing the need for economic vitality while ensuring the health and safety of our community," she wrote.
In Palo Alto, the City Council has not yet formally taken up a proposal to close University Avenue and California Avenue, but staff has been discussing the idea in recent weeks in virtual roundtables with local restaurant and business owners. Palo Alto is already temporarily limiting vehicle access on certain streets to give residents more space to walk, bike and run while complying with social distancing requirements. (Redwood City has done the same on 10 streets as part of a pilot "Slow Streets" program. In Oakland, 74 miles of city streets have been closed to through traffic.)
Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine said he supports the idea of closing main thoroughfares to traffic, saying, "There's never been a better time to try it." The usual argument against doing so, particularly on University — that it would intensify traffic on side streets and neighborhoods — doesn't carry as much weight when traffic has dropped significantly during the shelter-in-place order, he said. Fine has been discussing related ideas with City Manager Ed Shikada — including turning parking space on University Avenue into parklets and allowing more than one business -- such as a pop-up or food truck -- to share existing restaurant space. Fine said he is "totally supportive of experimenting with this stuff."
But with the City Council devoting much of its time to mitigating a nearly $40-million budget shortfall and continuing to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, Fine said the proposal to close downtown streets is not high on the city's priority list.
"Is it a great opportunity? Yes, but it's also not the absolute top priority right now. That's really our budgeting and health crises," he said.
Council member Alison Cormack also supports the idea and pointed to the fact that the city already closes part of California Avenue to traffic on Sundays for the farmers market.
"I think we've already proven that it can work," she said.
She also floated the idea of making California a one-way street, with additional outdoor seating on one side.
"My one concern is that the overriding objective of the health order is that we remain sheltering in place," she said. "I don't want us to open this up until it's safe to do so and doesn't constitute a gathering, but I think it's a great idea, COVID-19 or not, in terms of activating some of these spaces."
Restaurant owners are supportive of the proposal and hope their elected officials take action sooner than later.
"The crisis -- we're in it now," said Ekwall, who's facing major losses as a staff of just five people, including him, runs takeout service at La Bodeguita. "We will still be in it later, but now is when people really need help."
"You need to get parklets going and fast," Greg St. Claire, who owns Nola in downtown Palo Alto as well as restaurants in Redwood City, Portola Valley and San Carlos, wrote to the Palo Alto City Council in late April. He described a prohibitively difficult business environment in Palo Alto that predated the coronavirus, hoping the council would grasp and respond to the "economic reality we are facing."
For Oren's Hummus on University Avenue, which seats 49 people inside a small, narrow dining room during normal circumstances, additional outdoor seating would help sustain the business, co-owner Mistie Cohen said.
"This wouldn't be something we would want as a long-term solution, but I do believe for at least the next few months, it would be a great idea that would greatly support many restaurants," she said.
She also suggested the city create outdoor "picnic" events that would allow restaurants to serve or deliver food to local parks. Cormack also envisioned allowing food trucks to operate in local parks.
Guillaume Bienaime, who owns Zola on Bryant Street in downtown Palo Alto, said building parklets in front of restaurants would be great — as long as the city created a template with preselected plans, colors and fees to avoid a protracted permitting process. Zola has been closed since March, and Bienaime has been pressing the city to embrace creative ideas to help his and other restaurants recover.
"I believe we are going to see a radical change in consumer habits for the next couple of years," he wrote to the council in late April. "And we should have radical responses in order to maintain small business and a vibrant community."
Fine said he wants the city to use this time to reimagine the difficult path small businesses must take to open and succeed in Palo Alto. Retail requirements, signage and parking regulations, planning code and other requirements should all be on the table, he said.
"Our Palo Alto process has gotten out of control and our businesses are suffering because of it," Fine said. "I hope we can find some silver lining in this catastrophe for our business community, that in Palo Alto we re-evaluate and really swing the pendulum back to a more business-friendly community."
In several local cities, NextDoor pages and city council inboxes have been flooded with emails from residents who want to see their downtowns closed to traffic. Others remained concerned about the potential traffic impact.
"The loss of parking would impact the neighborhoods close to downtown where the displaced cars would fill the streets (which are often narrower, and full parking presents safety hazards by limiting emergency vehicle access)," Menlo Park resident Lynn Smolik wrote in an email to Mueller. "Hopefully the situation necessitating social distancing will be resolved before any hardscape changes could be made."
Many residents, however, have thrown their support behind the idea.
"We are in unprecedented times," Liz Laffont wrote to the Menlo Park City Council last week, urging them to adopt the street closures. "Changes have hit us, and we must adapt more swiftly and with more creativity than ever before."
Embarcadero Media staff writer Kate Bradshaw contributed to this article.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.