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A Push to Make Outdoor Dining Spaces Permanent in California

As California reopens, lawmakers are trying to preserve coronavirus pandemic measures that have worked well.

Across California, restaurants have taken over parking lots, sidewalks and streets for outdoor dining as the state has crawled back toward normalcy.

In some places, that has meant a couple of extra tables lined up along a curb. For other restaurants with more space nearby, it has meant setting up tents and more permanent barriers, like trellises or big planters, to add a little ambience to what had previously been unromantic patches of asphalt.

And across the state, diners, restaurant operators and city officials have all begun asking why they didn’t do this before.

State leaders have taken notice.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would pave the way for the temporary outdoor dining, alcohol sale and parklet regulations that are in place to become permanent. It passed the State Senate unanimously on Tuesday.

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the relaxed regulations through the end of the year, bridging the gap until the proposed new legislation would go into effect.

I talked with Scott Wiener, a state lawmaker from San Francisco who is a co-author of the outdoor dining bill, about why it’s important. Here is our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Tell me a little about the mechanics of this legislation.

Under California law — this is pre-Covid — a restaurant or bar, in order to serve outside, would basically have to expand their liquor permit. It could be a lengthy, difficult process, with appeals.

During the pandemic, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control issued emergency guidance that said if a city allowed it, they could expand alcohol sales outside.

That’s been great, not just for bars or restaurants, but patrons like it. And it activates public spaces.

Our bill, Senate Bill 314, is what’s known as an urgency bill, meaning it gets enacted immediately if the governor signs it by September. And it would authorize the A.B.C. to extend these permits en masse for one year.

We’re hopeful the A.B.C. will do that. We’ve been working with them — they’ve been terrific in supporting these restaurants.

Under the state Constitution, only the A.B.C. has the power to grant or modify state liquor licenses. The Legislature still creates the rules under which A.B.C. issues licenses. This bill would give businesses extra time to submit applications, because a lot of these restaurants have made significant investments.

What do you think are some hurdles? For instance, are you concerned at all about the one-year grace period ending and a bunch of zoning fights starting?

There’s always going to be fighting. That’s the nature of local government.

I think the difference here is, What’s the baseline? If a city had come forward before the pandemic and said, “Let’s dramatically expand outdoor dining,” there would have been a lot of pushback. Like, “Whoa, what’s going to happen to the neighborhood? We need parking.”

This is not a mysterious unknown now. Not everybody likes it, but most people do. They love it.

And cities will go through their own local decision-making. In San Francisco, the mayor has proposed an ordinance to make the outdoor dining program permanent.

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