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San Diego Prepares for Some Temporary Outdoor Dining Areas to Extend Their Stay

The Spread of Exterior Equipment Has Officials Concerned About Safety

By Lou Hirsh CoStar News

January 28, 2021 | 4:00 P.M.

San Diego is trying to ensure that makeshift outdoor dining areas that popped up in the pandemic follow health and safety standards as eateries around the country see the practice become a long-term fixture.

The effort includes sending out inspectors and advising restaurant operators and landlords who have scrambled to find ways to provide on-site dining to stay in business while the coronavirus has hammered the restaurant industry. It comes as California relaxes regional stay-at-home restrictions that have allowed only takeout and delivery orders since late last year.

“It’s meant for now to be educational and not punitive,” said Elizabeth Studebaker, assistant deputy director of the city’s Economic Development Department. “The communications that we have had with other cities suggest that they are dealing with these same kinds of issues.”

Cities nationwide have eased some pre-pandemic regulations to allow for a rise in tented outdoor dining configurations, with pop-up features resembling enclosed igloos and geodesic domes, as restaurants seek alternatives to indoor dining during colder winter weather. In the process, concerns have popped up about air circulation and the placement of heaters, lighting and other elements in temporary structures.

The issue has become more pressing as the pandemic drags on and more restaurant operators plan to keep what was once temporary longer than originally intended. According to research reported in September by the National Restaurant Association trade group, the majority of U.S. operators offered outdoor dining and planned to continue the service for at least another two months.

On average, full-service operators reported that nearly half, or 44%, of daily sales come from on-premises outdoor dining. In the limited-service category, which has more options for takeout and delivery, on-premises outdoor dining still accounted for a quarter of daily sales.

Beginning Feb. 1, San Diego, the nation’s eighth-most populous city, plans to have deputy fire marshals visit business neighborhoods citywide to inform restaurant operators and landlords of practices that could eventually run afoul of longstanding fire and safety codes for permanent and temporary structures.

That could include heaters placed too close to cloth tents, improperly stored propane tanks, outdoor spaces inappropriately walled off and seating placed on sidewalks or in parking areas blocking fire exits. Operators won't be immediately fined or sanctioned, but will be asked to correct potential problems before fire marshals return for follow-up visits, the city said.

The city is also reminding operators that they must have a temporary outdoor business operations permit to build temporary structures outside restaurants. Restaurants such as downtown San Diego’s Edgewater Grill have large open spaces taking advantage of fresh breezes coming off San Diego Bay, but they are planning for long-term outdoor additions that will involve building permits and port district approvals.

“So yes, it will be very costly,” said Diana Patrick, co-owner of Water View Restaurants, which operates Edgewater Grill and Pier Café in San Diego. “However, the expenses so many restaurateurs are undergoing to create outside seating could be avoided by allowing restaurants to conduct business inside in a safe manner.”

Creative Solutions

Since San Diego officials last summer allowed restaurant operators and business improvement districts to set up outdoor dining areas with a minimum of red tape, the city received 480 business applications and approved 370 permits, according to city data.

While issues such as heater placement were not initially a concern, the arrival of cooler weather and the lasting financial impacts of the pandemic have brought up issues in a growing number of situations, as more businesses look to counter restrictions against indoor dining.

“It was originally intended to be a temporary program,” Studebaker told CoStar News. “But we have now seen requests from the business community for these outdoor services that is beyond what we first anticipated.”

In the absence of indoor dining, methods like heated outdoor decks, tents and pop-up igloos are deemed crucial to keeping sales going in an industry that is estimated by the restaurant association to have lost at least $240 billion in sales nationwide because of the pandemic, as nearly 100,000 establishments closed permanently during 2020. And almost three-quarters of full-service and 60% of limited service operators nationwide said their restaurant offered on-premises outdoor dining on a patio, deck or sidewalk as of September, the association said.

“Restaurants that can’t afford these options are looking at other solutions, including blanket service in cooler climates,” the association report said.

In Los Angeles, County Supervisor Janice Hahn called for an immediate return to outdoor services as they were before the stay-at-home order.

“We should align ourselves with the state as much as possible which means, among other things, reopening outdoor dining with commonsense health protocols in place as soon as possible,” Hahn said in a statement. “The restaurant industry was devastated by this lengthy shutdown and I know this would be welcome news to them.”

Darren Tristano, CEO of Chicago-based dining industry consulting firm FoodserviceResults, said on-site code enforcement efforts have become crucial to ensuring public confidence in dining spaces, along with other local government programs that encourage residents to buy food at local eateries through carryout and delivery services.

"It's important for operators to remain within the safety standards designed to keep customers safe," Tristano told CoStar News. "Making sure permits are updated and inspections pass will be important to keeping kitchens open and staff on board."

Restaurant development consultant Jerry Prendergast said Los Angeles and other Southern California cities and counties need to be ready for the long haul.

“The question is whether these things that are working well, but were only intended to be temporary, will be allowed to continue after the emergency period is over,” said Prendergast, principal in Los Angeles-based Prendergast & Associates. “That’s what a lot of operators are going to be asking as we move forward.”

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