San Francisco’s prominent commercial corridors, once lined with parked cars and idling ride-hail vehicles, have come to resemble street fairs during the pandemic as restaurants and small businesses have moved operations outdoors, bringing people together to dine and imbibe in the open air.
Thousands of local businesses have taken advantage of Shared Spaces, a city-run program borne of the pandemic that provides fee-free permits to local restaurants and other businesses to set up shop outside, inhabiting public space such as sidewalks, parking spots and alleyways.
City officials and the small business community alike have described the program as a lifeline for struggling establishments during the pandemic, which has already shuttered dozens of bars and restaurants across The City and left others to barely get by at limited capacity, as well as a bright spot in an otherwise harrowing time.
“I think we’ve all discovered there’s a lot of joy and community in having businesses serve the public in an outdoor setting,” said Sharky Laguana, president of the San Francisco Small Business Commission.
San Francisco lawmakers, chief among them Mayor London Breed, have voiced support for formalizing Shared Spaces well beyond the end of the public health crisis, and new legislation from state Sen. Scott Wiener could smooth that path to permanence.
“The last year has offered us the chance to rethink how we bring our streets to life and support small businesses,” Breed said in a statement. “Our Shared Spaces program will live on long past this pandemic, and this proposal from Scott Wiener at the state level is an important step in the right direction.”
Proposed on Feb. 5, the Bar and Restaurant Recovery Act, also known as SB 314, would modify California’s liquor licensing laws to make it easier for restaurants, bars and music venues to be flexible with how and where they serve alcohol.
Doing so, Wiener says, would modernize California’s outdated liquor laws as well as support the industry’s recovery from impacts of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
“If we’re going to have a robust economic recovery, small business must be part of that equation, so we need to support our bars, restaurants and music venues to help them come out of this,” he said.
Existing state laws make serving booze in many settings cumbersome.
Dining establishments can only serve alcohol in an outdoor space essentially touching their physical location; businesses in the same commercial space can’t create a shared alcohol consumption site; appeals processes can hold up license issuance for months; and music venues are limited in what they can sell without also operating a full kitchen.
But during the pandemic, the Alcohol and Beverage Commission has temporarily loosened restrictions so that programs such as San Francisco’s Shared Spaces can work, as long as restaurant and bar owners seek the temporary permit from the state that allows them to serve alcohol further off the premise in newly activated public spaces such as platforms and outdoor dining setups.
Wiener’s legislation would essentially institutionalize this flexibility at the state level, as well as give cities the authority to create open container sites, allow local governments to permit more co-location in order to drive down commercial rent costs, streamline the process of securing a liquor license from ABC and create a separate liquor license for music venues.
“I think when you have a statewide liquor law that is undermining the ability of cities to activate public space, I think we should change that law to give cities more flexibility,” Wiener said of the intent of the legislation, which has received bipartisan support from members of the California State Legislature.
Cities would determine whether they’d allow businesses to take advantage of the sanctioned flexibility.
“When it comes to public space and restaurant and bar culture, every community is very unique. There are places where it might not be appropriate or necessary in any way,” Wiener said. “But for many, including San Francisco, it makes a lot of sense.”
Here in The City, businesses that have obtained a Shared Spaces permit as well as a temporary ABC license to serve alcohol in these outdoor spaces would have the ability to continue doing so, even after the pandemic has subsided.
Without the change to the state liquor law, though, business owners could still operate in their platforms and other outdoor dining spaces, but they would be far more restricted in where they could serve alcoholic beverages.
As of the first week of Feb. 2021, 2,958 businesses have applied for Shared Spaces permits. Of those, roughly 2,042 have been fully approved, according to Robin Abad, director of Shared Spaces.
Abad said a survey of those current permit holders shows 93 percent would want to continue operating their outdoor space, even after indoor activities are allowed by public health orders, “underscoring how critical the increased capacity will be to their recovery.”
Amid a backdrop of competing priorities to support pandemic recovery, Wiener said healthy small business communities are essential to the economic future of San Francisco and to ensuring neighborhoods remain full of life, without the rows of vacant storefronts that often lead to increased crime, decreased safety and less vibrancy.
He also said it’s fundamental to maintaining San Francisco’s cultural spirit.
“San Francisco, in particular is truly about food, drink, music and entertainment and people being together,” he said. “That’s part of the cultural heart of our city, and always has been, so we should go above and beyond to support this sector and to make sure that the heart of our city continues.”