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Long Beach Will Let You Dine In The Streets -- And Other SoCal Cities May Follow

A parklet in Long Beach, in front of Lola's restaurant. (Brad Davis, AICP/Flickr Creative Commons)
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Additional reporting by Lita Martinez and Monica Bushman.

We can't guarantee there'll be swinging, swaying or records playing, but there will be dining in the streets.

The Long Beach City Council on Tuesday night approved a plan to open some of its streets for al fresco eating -- one of the first cities in Los Angeles County to do so. Pasadena, Sierra Madre and Palm Springs and are considering similar options.

Long Beach's Open Streets initiative, which is currently focused on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach and on Bixby Knolls, has several components.

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In some cases, the city might close entire streets to vehicles. In others, it might partially close streets. In others, it might allow restaurants to transform their parking lots into dining areas or expand sidewalk dining.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all model," Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said this morning on our newsroom's public affairs show AirTalk, which airs on 89.3 KPCC.

But before outdoor dining can become a reality, the city must clear important hurdles under the state's current reopening guidelines. Positive COVID-19 cases must be under 8% for at least a week in a county before next steps can happen. Los Angeles County is currently at 9% -- and as of this week, more than 11% of Long Beach residents are testing positive.

A parklet on Spring Street in downtown L.A. (LADOT/Flickr Creative Commons)

As Los Angeles (and the rest of Southern California) moves toward loosening stay-at-home orders, officials will likely impose limits on how many patrons can be inside a restaurant at the same time and how far apart tables must be placed. Allowing restaurateurs to seat patrons outside would expand an establishment's capacity and help its bottom line.

Besides, in Southern California patio dining (although not necessarily sidewalk dining) is so popular it's practically a sport. The physical distancing practices demanded by coronavirus have given that choice new weight.

One of the best ways to transmit coronavirus to a lot of people all at once is for them to sit near each other in an enclosed space (such as a restaurant or a movie theater) and breathe the same recirculated air (you may know it as air conditioning). In the pandemic era, dining outside isn't merely an aesthetic preference, it's a health-centric one.

"What we're hearing is people are much more comfortable eating outside as opposed to being inside with COVID," says Sierra Madre City Manager Gabe Engeland. "And being outside, from all the information we're seeing, is safer. As long as you're still social distancing, practicing good hygiene."

A parklet on York Boulevard in Highland Park. (LADOT/Flickr Creative Commons)

Officials in Sierra Madre are in talks with 20 downtown restaurant owners about a program that would waive permitting fees and provide equipment, such as K-rails and fencing, so these businesses could turn sidewalks, parking spaces and parking lots into pocket-size oases known as parklets. Put a few folding tables and bistro chairs out there and voilà.

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Many of restaurants in Sierra Madre are independent operations and don't have much ability to spread out seating in their relatively small dining room. This program could potentially give each restaurant an additional 400 square feet of room.

"It provides, I think, a unique opportunity for the diner to feel safer, to have physical distance and and enjoy something that's maybe a little bit more European or South American," Long Beach Mayor Garcia said on AirTalk.

Right now, these initiatives are temporary but if they work well, they could be here to stay.

"We still have to follow all the state's rules when this can happen... because we want to do this safely," Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors said on AirTalk. "If we do it safely, we're going to be able to keep it open longer term and, like Long Beach, we're also looking at how this might work permanently in some of these spaces."

Parklets aren't new. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Long Beach was already working with architect Alan Pullman to transform curbside parking spaces outside some downtown restaurants. And they've been part of downtown L.A. and Highland Park, among other Los Angeles neighborhoods, for years.

Restaurants will still have to wait, however, for Los Angeles County officials to allow dine-in eating.



4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the current postive testing rates in L.A. County and Long Beach.

This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.

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