Owners of the Bay Area’s restaurants agree on one thing: It’ll be damn near impossible to stay in business if their dining room capacity is cut. While California’s guidelines for restaurant reopening don’t specify a specific slash in capacity, they do require social distancing measures between patrons and workers, which means that to make enough money to remain afloat, restaurants need way more space to serve diners. In response, officials across the Bay Area have discussed taking over street space for restaurant use — and now, Berkeley has put that discussion into action, as today it introduced legislation to fully close many of the city’s streets, repurposing them as seating areas for the city’s vibrant restaurant scene.
Speaking with Eater SF, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín says that the plan was inspired by news coverage of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, which announced last month that it would turn its plazas, streets, and squares into “a vast open-air cafe” to allow its bars and restaurants to serve patrons during the coronavirus crisis.
Photos of Vilnius sparked a similar idea in San Jose, where last week Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilwoman Dev Davis proposed “Al Fresco San Jose,” a program in which “businesses — particularly restaurants — could be allowed to take over parking lots, shut down parts of streets and siphon off areas of a public park for open-air services,” the San Jose Mercury News reports. Also last week, San Mateo’s city council “asked staff to come up with the specifics on a plan” to close two streets in the city for restaurant use, according to NBC Bay Area.
In San Francisco, restaurant lobbying group the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) has also petitioned legislators to allowing restaurants to take over open spaces around their businesses, including parking spaces and adjacent alleyways “commercial corridors,” but so far, city officials have not proposed any legislation — and some restaurateurs tell Eater SF they’re concerned that San Francisco’s labyrinthine bureaucracy means that results might come slowly, if at all.
Things apparently move faster in Berkeley. According to Arreguín, every second counts when it comes to relieving “the significant impact our restaurants have endured since the shutdown,” and Berkeley needs to get a plan together now to allow dining in streets when so-called high risk businesses are cleared to reopen.
Unlike some proposals, which mention restaurant use of parklets, sidewalks, or parking spaces, the Berkeley plan — which Arreguín and Vice Mayor Sophie Hahn introduced today — would completely close city streets during restaurant operation hours, Arreguín says, allowing residents to again “go out, be safe, and still enjoy our local restaurants.”
Arreguín says that the city’s next steps will be to “reach out to business community to get their input on which streets will close,” with an eye on both traffic flow and representation of areas across the city. Along with the streets could also come a plan for restaurants to repurpose other public spaces, like private parking lots and plazas. “We should look at all the options,” Arreguín says, “but closing these streets comes first.”
Arreguín says that so far, reactions to the plan have been positive, and that the only impediments he sees are concerns about relaxing local regulations too quickly. “We’re taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to reopening,” Arreguín says, noting that so far, the city only has 67 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and no deaths from the virus in the past month.
“We will implement this only when it is safe for Berkeley and for the region,” Arreguín says, “but we have to start, today, to find a way for restaurants open safely and with maximum physical distancing.” So, the legislation is now in the hands of Berkeley’s city council, which Arreguín says is “quite supportive” of the plan. They’ll vote on the program on June 2, and then — assuming it passes — Berkeley’s City Manager will “identify sites where tables and chairs can be placed, in consultation with Berkeley’s Public Health Officer, businesses and related partners,” a draft version of the legislation reads, as well as establish protocols “to allow for the usage of this space in a safe and sanitary manner.”
If all goes as planned, Arreguín says, Berkeley’s streets could be Vilnius-style cafes by this summer. And who knows, he says, the program might continue even when the pandemic ends. “We’ve done this before,” Arreguín says, citing the city’s Sunday Streets program and other open-air festivals. “It’s not a new concept.” But it’s one that, if acted on quickly and safely, could help ensure that the city’s restaurants find a way to remain in business as the financially devastating crisis continues.