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Outdoor Dining — and Drinking — Could Be Here to Stay in California

Seeking a European atmosphere, a San Francisco lawmaker wants to ease alcohol restrictions and allow restaurants to continue serving on city streets even after the pandemic.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Stymied by the coronavirus and the resulting bans on traditional dining, Keegan Currey decided to take his restaurant to the street.  

With his industry fingered by local and state officials as prime spreaders of Covid-19, Currey and other restaurateurs in California were suddenly forced to make a tough choice: Close or move their tables outdoors.

Currey, who owns Kupros Craft House in midtown Sacramento, said the decision that has ultimately helped keep the lights on and employees on the schedule was a no-brainer.

“Sacramento has great weather,” Currey said during a lunch-hour rush on a cloudless winter day. “Our city is conducive to outdoor dining.”

Fortunately for the scores of restaurants in Sacramento and across the state that have resorted to sidewalk dining just to survive the pandemic, the setup could become a mainstay. 

“The pandemic hit our restaurants, bars, and music venues like a wrecking ball, and we need to throw these small businesses a lifeline,” said state Senator Scott Wiener.These businesses are part of the fabric of our communities, and they employ so many of our neighbors.”

On Friday, the San Francisco Democrat introduced a proposal that would make California’s pandemic dining and alcohol experiment permanent.

Along with expanded outdoor liquor service, Senate Bill 314 would allow multiple businesses to rent and serve alcohol out of the same physical location. Wiener also wants to make it easier for neighboring businesses to open up shared outdoor spaces in parking lots or other areas to create more room for customers to eat, drink and mingle.

Wiener says the relaxed rules during the pandemic have been “wildly popular” in San Francisco and helped to create a more European dining atmosphere. 

“SB 314 creates much more flexibility for our hospitality businesses and makes permanent the expanded outdoor dining that so many Californians have grown to love,” Wiener added. 

The business-friendly legislation comes as California restaurants and bars continue to be thrown the hardest punches from the pandemic.

Indoor dining is still prohibited in every major county and city under Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest pandemic order, while the pace of mass restaurant closures that began last summer has yet to slow.

Last month alone, California’s leisure and hospitality industry cut 117,000 jobs and has reported a loss of over 600,000 workers since December 2019.

Nationwide statistics are just as grim, as a recent industry report estimated restaurant and foodservice sales dropped by $240 billion in 2020.

Kupros Craft House owner Keegan Currey pours a beer under the restaurant's remarkable mosaic ceiling. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

While Kupros Craft House has been able to stay afloat, Currey says it’s been tough watching other small restaurants close in what was previously a bustling Sacramento dining scene.

“It’s been extremely difficult; I never could have thought the pandemic would result in this much hardship,” he said while pouring a draft beer for a customer.

As 2020 dragged on, Currey says he finally decided to ask the city for a permit to build a deck and expand his outdoor capacity. In a rare twist of good news, the city gave Currey the OK and even agreed to let him take up metered parking spots for a patio and additional tables.

If Wiener’s bill passes and the pandemic orders are nixed, Currey says he will try to keep the setup as it adds about 25% capacity. He added the extra outdoor options have been a hit with customers and urged support for SB 314.

“It’s a great idea, especially for downtown restaurants,” Currey said.    

Wiener has already picked up bipartisan support from nearly a dozen other lawmakers and his measure will likely get its first committee hearing this spring. Introduced as an urgency measure, the relaxed alcohol rules would take effect immediately if it gains two-thirds approval from both the Senate and Assembly.

Under SB 314, the state would also speed up the application process for new liquor licenses as well as create a new form of license specifically for entertainment venues. If passed, the bill will give cities and counties more flexibility in granting permits for “open container” zones popular with street fairs and neighborhood concerts, where people could drink from nearby businesses.

The midtown Sacramento restaurant Meet & Eat has built a permanent outdoor addition to accommodate diners during pandemic restrictions and boost capacity when things return to normal. (Courthouse News Service / Nick Cahill)
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