Santa Barbara is moving the dining room to the sidewalk. Will LA follow?

In Santa Barbara, hungry locals have returned to restaurants. Most are sitting outside in the fresh air, though eating inside is an option too.

“For two months I’ve been holding down the fort, doing takeout and to-go’s. And all of a sudden, now here we are. … People just roamin’ up and down the street. And yeah, it’s a game changer,” says Warren Butler, the manager of The Chase restaurant on State Street.

The “game changer” is the City of Santa Barbara shutting down its main drag, State Street, to cars. The wide open road means people can walk while keeping their distance, and restaurant owners can expand dining rooms onto the sidewalks to boost al fresco dining options.

As the pandemic has gone on, it’s become clear that the risk of infection from coronavirus is considerably reduced when you’re outside compared to indoors. That’s prompted communities throughout Southern California to explore the feasibility of shutting down streets and letting pedestrians and diners have the right of way.

Santa Barbara County has been making the most of the sunny weather and long days. It won approval from the state to reopen dine-in service at restaurants on May 22. 

Downtown Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare, State Street, was closed to vehicle traffic on May 22. This came hours after officials  announced that restaurants in the county could reopen to dine-in customers. Photo credit: Matt Guilhem

That reopening comes with limitations. Dining rooms can only seat a handful of guests, but street-side tables offer restaurants a way to make up for nearly empty interiors. Outdoor tables can be six feet apart and spill off of patios and into the sidewalk. They may even expand to the blacktop of the road soon. 

Santa Barbara has long billed itself as “the American Riviera,” and the closure of State Street to cars definitely gives the downtown a European feel. People stroll, cyclists ride by, the sound of conversation and clinking glasses hangs in the air. And the unease that permeated every outing has finally dissipated. 

Restaurants are loving the change too. 

“With the brief period of time that it’s been open — I know it was Memorial Day Weekend and so on and so forth …  [there was] double the business of what we did last year. If you’re up 100%, there’s nothing besides something like this that can make that happen,” The Chase’s Warren Butler says about the street being closed to cars.

The city has kicked around the idea of closing the main drag to cars for a while, but Butler thinks the decisive action by the City Council could be the thing that jump-starts the downtown business district.

“I’m talking to my friends up and down the street, and I’m saying, ‘Hey, you’re in a good position,’” says Butler. “If you have a storefront, especially in the restaurant businesses, and you’re allowed to come out on to the sidewalk, before there were other options. People were headed down to the Funk Zone, they were headed down to the waterfront. But now, this is going to make downtown State Street the place to be.”

As Santa Barbara takes a leading role in adapting its core to facilitate distance and business, the effort is drawing the attention of officials in LA County. Individual cities like Pasadena, Santa Monica, San Pedro, and Long Beach are looking into how they can do something similar.

Long Beach is likely closer to the goal than anywhere else in LA County. The state of California’s safer-at-home orders say county public health departments need to sign off before anything like what’s happening on State Street can get underway. 

But Long Beach is special. The city has its own health department. Along with Pasadena, they’re the only cities in LA County that have the distinction.

Currently, restaurants in Long Beach are facing a bleak situation. Pine Avenue is dotted with cafes and eateries that are closed because of the pandemic. It’s a common sight across many parts of California. A recent state tally found that the leisure and hospitality industry, including restaurants, lost nearly 900,000 jobs.

The outlier on Pine Avenue is George’s Greek Cafe. It’s open, serving food to-go.

“We usually have about 35 employees,” says Torri Yarmoluk, the manager at George’s. “Currently, we're probably working with about six to eight.

If Long Beach were to adopt a plan similar to what they’re doing in Santa Barbara, Yarmoluk says the business could serve customers outside, and that would be game changing. Right now, food businesses in LA County can’t even let diners eat their meals on restaurant patios.

The patio outside George’s Greek Cafe on Pine Avenue in Long Beach. Photo credit: Benjamin Gottlieb

The mayor of Long Beach, Robert Garcia, says it wouldn’t be that difficult to get the city on the same track as Santa Barbara.

“It could be as easy as allowing the restaurants to put up their tables or umbrellas or whatever, whatever else they're going to use to kind of decorate their space,” Garcia says. “But I think the idea is to not create an overly burdensome, expensive process, but a simpler process that doesn't require a lot of permitting.”  

At George’s Greek Cafe, manager Torri Yarmoluk says she’s not quite sure what they’d do with their space. She says a lot depends on if they’d only be expanding to the sidewalk or all the way out onto the pavement.

“I've seen a couple renditions actually where they do build out into the street,” Yarmoluk says. “I'm not sure if our setup will be that or if we're going to be a little bit more open-air, where they just let us shut down the whole street, have some Astroturf and tents and some shade for folks.”

Restaurants wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from these COVID-induced promenades. Bars and wine tasting rooms will also be able to get in on the action.

At Waters Edge Winery, just up the street from George’s, the tasting room also serves food. The manager, Collin Mitzenmacher, says they’re eagerly waiting for June when the City of Long Beach plans to let places like his start serving food and drinks outdoors. He says a program letting his business reopen and expand can’t come soon enough.

Collin Mitzenmacher, manager of Waters Edge Winery of Long Beach, is eager to reopen his business to customers. He has had to lay off all of his staff since the pandemic shut him down. Photo credit: Benjamin Gottlieb

“I had to lay my whole staff off, unfortunately, due to the pandemic,” says Mitzenmacher. “My girlfriend and I actually ran this place for the last 60 plus days, just labeling and selling wine, and pushing charcuterie boxes, and doing everything we could just to keep some drops in the bucket. … You know being out on the street and all that is kind of a fun thing for people to experience. So we are trying our best to work with the regulations that they're setting in front of us.”

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia says he hopes an open streets initiative isn’t just a temporary solution to a pandemic problem.

“I think that Long Beach has been ahead of the game as it relates to open streets and as relates to bike boulevards and pedestrian access,” Garcia says. “And so I think a lot of these projects hopefully will become permanent after. I think there's an opportunity for some of that.”

There’s a similar wait-and-see approach in Santa Barbara. While State Street will definitely remain closed for the duration of California’s state of emergency due to the coronavirus, Mayor Cathy Murillo says there’s a chance it could continue past that.

“Closing State Street to car traffic — people have talked about that for a long time. For now it’s experimental, for now it’s temporary. We’re just giving it a try,” says Murillo. “But there’s [sic] a lot of people that want to see that become a permanent pedestrian promenade. We’ll have to see how it works out.”