ENCINITAS — For at least another year-and-a-half, the City of Encinitas will continue to allow outdoor street dining for restaurants along with other relief provisions first enacted to support local businesses at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Encinitas City Council unanimously approved the extension of the city’s COVID-era relief measures through Jan. 1, 2024, at its Wednesday meeting. Since June 2020, the city has issued temporary encroachment permits allowing local restaurants to utilize public rights-of-way for outdoor dining purposes.
City leaders cited the need to provide ongoing relief for businesses still struggling to recoup losses from the pandemic, along with overwhelming feedback from business owners and residents supporting the extension of outdoor dining, as the primary reasons for the measure’s approval.
The council’s decision came as outdoor dining and the alcohol service measures were set to expire in June. A statewide executive order protecting such provisions expired in March, leaving it up to individual municipalities to decide whether to continue these measures on their own.
“I think that there’s an overwhelming feeling of relief in knowing that these restaurants now won’t have to pack up on street dining operations in the middle of summer,” said Councilmember Kellie Hinze.
“During my campaign in 2020 the question was how do we keep this going as long as possible hopefully in the long term but also in the short term as our businesses are struggling, and I’m glad that the intent is there to keep this going,” Hinze said. “Our main takeaway from the feedback we received was that restaurants are still suffering due to the fallout of the pandemic including the labor shortage and difficulties with the supply chain and things like that, so it’s so important to have the predictability for restaurants where they know they won’t have to shut down their capacities.”
In addition to the continuation of outdoor dining in public right-of-way parking spaces and on city sidewalks, businesses will still be able to sell and deliver alcohol off-site and serve alcohol in expanded outdoor areas, according to Councilmember Tony Kranz.
The city will also continue to take new permit applications from businesses who wish to create outdoor dining areas of their own, Kranz said.
Kranz acknowledged that some businesses and residents have been vocally opposed to the outdoor dining continuation due to concerns about parking encroachment and traffic impacts. However, he expressed the vast majority of feedback concerning the proposal was favorable.
“The key for me in supporting this was that there was an overall absence of citizen objections to this continuation,” Kranz said. “I personally enjoy downtown a lot more with the life that this has brought to the streets, so I was inclined to keep it.”
In balancing the interests of businesses negatively impacted by the proposal versus the benefits to restaurants and residents, Kranz said the council ultimately felt like the advantages outweighed the costs.
“There certainly are some businesses that don’t like the encroachments and that’s largely driven by the type of business that they have,” Kranz said. “For instance, I got an email recently from one business owner about how the loss of parking has impacted their business model, as opposed to some of the other adjacent businesses that are geared up to a more evening, nighttime clientele.
“There’s also the boutiques that are dependent on patrons being able to park nearby, but at the same time, there’s no question that places are busier because of patrons who are coming downtown for dinner and receiving that foot traffic. So, a lot of this is driven by what type of business there is and it’s also driven by whether you’re doing business in an area where there was a loss of parking.”
Scott Smith, the owner of The Original 101 Diner located on South Coast Highway, spoke out strongly in opposition to the continuation of outdoor dining.
“There is no parking downtown already, so I can’t believe that you are considering extending the street dining for another year-and-a-half when Covid is already over,” Smith said. “Businesses that depend on daytime traffic, as opposed to nighttime foot traffic, are getting crushed by the lack of parking during the day
But the majority of business owners and residents at Wednesday’s meeting spoke in favor of the council’s decision.
Whitney Johndro, director of operations for Culture Brewing, said outdoor dining and other COVID-era, pro-business measures continue to be a vital lifeline for a host of local establishments that are still recovering from huge losses suffered during the pandemic.
“We were hit really hard by COVID-19 closures and the continuation of the outdoor space will allow us to recoup some of those losses caused by the pandemic,” Johndro said. “We believe these outdoor spaces have created an extremely positive experience for downtown Encinitas and have been huge in allowing businesses to survive through these hard and trying times.”
Mark Dobbins and Ray Vento, owners of Roxy Encinitas, both said their customers overwhelmingly prefer to keep eating outside.
“People love the seating outside, and with a possible Covid resurgence coming in the near future, it makes a lot of sense to give people this added outside dining option,” Dobbins said. “These street patios have also been a lifeline to the restaurant community and keeping them will give us the ability to make up revenue lost in all the Covid shutdowns.”
“People live here (and move here) because of the year-round weather,” Vento said. “People want to sit outside year-round here. It is brain damage to me that this has not been an option here historically “The community has proven that parking is not an issue. Clearly, there is an underlying mind-frame that carpooling, Ubering or walking is worth it in exchange for outdoor dining. I hope the city recognizes the demand from the residents as well as the visitors for outdoor dining.”
David Peck, president of the Encinitas 101 MainStreet Association, said that on balance, a majority of local businesses have expressed support for the outdoor dining extension.
Peck noted the council appears to have found a middle ground in its decision by not permanently extending COVID-era protections for businesses, similar to the City of San Diego, but instead, doing so on a temporary basis, allowing city leaders to reassess the pros and cons of the policy at a future date.
“Clearly a balancing of interests needs to take place with this in terms of the parking and the traffic while providing the outdoor dining opportunities that bring so much vitality to downtown after two years of being shut down,” Peck said. “So, I think that this 18-month extension really strikes a middle ground between those concerned about parking and such and those who really love outdoor dining. We can see how it goes during this time of reprieve and then revisit the issue, but overall the community seems to embrace the opportunity for the continuation of outdoor dining.”
Despite Wednesday’s vote, council members recognized there is still work to do to mitigate the impacts of outdoor establishments on parking, traffic and public safety.
Hinze said that the city has received considerable feedback from residents and businesses frustrated by the reduced number of parking spaces caused by the outdoor dining expansion. In the coming months, Hinze said city staff will be conducting a parking study to identify strategies aimed at alleviating the parking issue.
“We’ll be looking at things like shared parking agreements between businesses, identifying places for employee parking downtown, encouraging people to use different forms of transportation and then we’ll even be considering public shuttles as a potential solution,” Hinze said. “The idea is that you should be able to park once and patronize multiple businesses so that hopefully people don’t feel that parking is a constraint and avoid our downtown area.”
In terms of traffic, Kranz said he’s personally concerned about further congestion along Coast Highway 101 due to outdoor dining areas constricting certain sections of the thoroughfare.
“We do need to work to get creative in addressing the issues related to traffic flows on Highway 101, in particular, the lack of left-turn pockets at D and E streets are a disaster, they cause traffic chaos constantly on weekends when it gets busy,” Kranz said. “There’s no real solution to that particular problem. The best solution is just ultimately for people to leave their cars at home and come downtown by foot or bike so as to reduce the traffic.”
The council also continues to be concerned about the safety of customers dining along the roadside since there are no clear standards stipulating how restaurants are required to protect patrons in areas of heavy traffic, Kranz said. The city currently sets up orange-colored barricades along the 101 that restaurants can use to protect their dining areas, but the councilman acknowledged that this alone may not be sufficient to ensure patron safety.
“Yeah, there is an issue of safety for restaurant patrons dining in what used to be parking spaces, with decks or tables set out, so the question of whether the orange barricades there will be enough is something that our risk management department and public safety people have determined is acceptable, but there’s no question that the risk of accidents is greater in a street like that,” Kranz said. “There’s no question that it’s an increased risk, I think that the solution there is to continue to remind people to slow down, don’t drive and drive, and to make sure that our law enforcement has a presence there during busy times.”