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By Shawn Raymundo
With restaurants in Orange County ordered to cease all indoor operations as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to spike locally and throughout the state, the city and downtown eateries this week turned their focus to open-air dining.
Along Avenida Del Mar, a handful of restaurants on Thursday, July 9, began to utilize parking spaces in front of their establishments to set up outdoor seating and tables as part of a city initiative to support local businesses during the pandemic.
“A lot of the local businesses have been very impacted by the state’s shutdown order, so the city’s been looking into ways to encourage a safe but effective reopening so these businesses can get back to work again,” Economic Development Officer Jonathan Lightfoot said, explaining the city’s business assistance strategy.
The city council approved the assistance strategy in early June, around the time restaurants were given the green to light to begin reopening. The strategy relaxed some of the city’s zoning restrictions, allowing businesses to apply for special permits to expand outdoor services.
The concept was also meant to eventually create a downtown promenade by closing off Del Mar to traffic on Sundays. According to Lightfoot, the city, in collaboration with the San Clemente Downtown Business Association (DBA), targeted Sunday, July 12, as the inaugural date for the promenade.
“We were initially looking at a model to do an occasional shutdown of Avenida Del Mar, just to give more space for social distancing and to create an environment that felt comfortable (for patrons) to come back to these businesses once they were allowed to reopen,” Lightfoot said.
However, ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom dialed back up stay-at-home restrictions in multiple counties, including Orange, where positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have surged.
For the fifth consecutive day on Friday, July 10, the county added more than 1,000 cases to its running total, reaching 22,650 cumulative cases, with 412 deaths. Over the past few weeks, hospitalizations in Orange County ticked up, growing each day, reaching its highest point so far on Wednesday, July 8, with 691 people admitted to a hospital bed.
Locally, San Clemente has seen an exponential growth in cases over the past month. The city’s cumulative total more than doubled over a 15-day period, increasing from 86 cases on June 25 to 174 cases on Friday.
Because of the increase in cases, restaurants, movie theaters, entertainment centers, museums, cardrooms, wineries and zoos have been directed to close all indoor operations for at least three weeks—but could be extended. These businesses can, however, still operate outdoors.
“We had to pivot last week when the governor announced that all restaurants in Orange County … had to shut down their indoor dining again,” Lightfoot said. “That was sort of the hinge point for us to shift our model very quickly, really just over the weekend, into looking at a solution that would be more daily for restaurants.”
Initially, Lightfoot explained, the city was going to launch the promenade, using the inaugural event to evaluate the experience before giving the individual restaurants the go ahead to open the on-street dining daily.
“But now, again, given the current circumstances, we’re certainly encouraging them to take advantage of that opportunity to be on the street,” Lightfoot said.
For the time being, downtown eateries including Avila’s El Ranchito and The Cellar have set up areas outside their restaurants for the open-air concept. Lightfoot said the city will reevaluate the promenade idea after the governor’s latest restriction ends.
“So instead of doing a full closure of Del Mar we pivoted to just closing some of the parking to allow restaurants to have the opportunity to have on-street dining,” he said, before noting the challenge the restaurant industry faces in having to stop and start the business.
“It’s really difficult, and not just for them in ordering … but also for staffing,” he said. “We’re conscious that this could really impact those who just started working again. Having some opportunity like this, the goal is that we not only keep the restaurants open, but also keep people working as well.”
Echoing Lightfoot’s sentiment, Chris Aitken, who chairs the DBA Board of Directors, said part of the goal of the concept is to match the volume of available seating outdoors that’s usually offered indoors, and keep restaurant staff employed.
“During this process, it’s no secret how hard the restaurant industry has been hit, and all the industries in town, so this open-air dining experience lets the restaurant … come out and make up for capacity, which is really vital,” Aitken said, adding that it also “allows us to bring staffing back.”
Touching on parking availability, Lightfoot said that there are currently about 40 spaces along Del Mar being used by the restaurants. But, he added, the public library is still closed, allowing for downtown visitors to use that parking lot, which has more than double the amount of spaces taken up by the restaurants.
“We feel really good about the opportunity for people to come downtown and find a space to park,” he said.
As far as safety concerns with regards to traffic, potentially speeding vehicles, Lightfoot said the city is cognizant of the issue, but notes that Del Mar is a 25-mph zone, functioning like a residential street, and that “higher-standard” barricades are being used to enclose the outdoor seating areas.
“We’re using great, metal parade barricades to surround these areas,” he said, “And the other thing is … a lot of these restaurants will have umbrellas that are kind of this functioning street furniture that gets people’s attention and makes those areas very visible for people who are on the streets.”
Asked whether the downtown corridor will begin to see open-air shopping in the future, Lightfoot said that the council-approved strategy does allow for retailers to apply for the special permits as well, and that he has been talking with a couple of downtown shops about the concept.
“This order has really impacted restaurants, but it is on my radar to also feature those retailers at some point,” he said, adding, “It is something we’ll likely see this summer as well, is a focus in on those retail shops.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.