By Jot Condie
Special to CalMatters
When it was first imagined, outdoor dining was a necessary response to help the California restaurant community survive in the COVID-19 era. California lawmakers knew they could not simply stand by while one of California’s largest business sectors withered and died.
Lawmakers and the restaurant community collaborated on new approaches to sustain operations, including outdoor dining. Once a reality, restaurants benefitted and patrons loved the novel, charming arrangements. Today, it is hard to imagine reverting back to the old way.
But outdoor restaurant dining, still a lifeline to thousands of restaurants, is at risk. In late 2021, news reports chronicled the past promise and present peril of outdoor dining spaces in San Francisco.
No sooner had restaurants started to realize the benefits of San Francisco’s “Shared Spaces” outdoor dining “parklet” structures, than the city started to impose restrictions and costly fines for arbitrary infractions. Other cities, from San Diego to San Clemente, have also vowed a crackdown.
Innovative, thoughtful approaches to helping restaurants stay in business, like outdoor dining, have been a critical lifeline in the last two years. State policymakers need to stay focused on supportive policies that help maintain our community establishments and benefit COVID-weary Californians.
Over the past year, restaurant owners have demonstrated enormous creativity to generate revenue, maintain rigorous sanitation requirements, protect and train employees, instill confidence in customers, adapt to supply chain challenges, adjust to rising prices and integrate new business processes like delivery and pick-up options.
Restaurants have not done it all on their own. Last year, the California Legislature passed and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law several bills to help, including Senate Bill 389, allowing alcohol to go; Assembly Bill 286, regulating costs and transparency for food delivery platforms; Senate Bill 314, extending the deadline for permanent conversion of outdoor dining with alcohol; and companion bill Assembly Bill 61, which eases the process for pop-ups to secure temporary liquor licenses.
These critically important actions will help the industry endure this challenging pandemic era and allow Californians to gather socially in safe public places.
The restaurant industry has gone too far to go back. Thousands of bars and restaurants have adjusted to the new reality, including creating outdoor spaces that generate regular business. Keeping our doors open helps us maintain employment for service workers, many of whom are middle- and low-income people of color, allowing them to care for their families in this time of great economic vulnerability.
If lawmakers are truly vested in seeing restaurants succeed, they should adopt regulations at the state level, including outdoor dining, that set a consistent standard across the state. By the same token, they must also abandon legislation and regulations that would cause harm to the restaurant community.
At the top of the list of harmful legislation is the so-called FAST Recovery Act, or Assembly Bill 257, which would create another state and local bureaucracy to oversee California restaurant franchises. The legislation, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and expected to be taken up this year, hurts a large segment of restaurant owners including minority and women entrepreneurs who seek to earn a living in the restaurant community.
Given the experience of the past year, legislators should understand restaurants’ unique role in bringing communities together and keeping Californians employed. The actions our lawmakers take, including enacting regulations and laws that protect neighborhood restaurants in the current era and create certainty, will pay dividends for the state and Californians for many years to come.
Jot Condie is president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association.
CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.