Like most restaurant owners, Mario Nasab is struggling to recover from the financial hit in the COVID-19 pandemic.
His Italian restaurant, La Traviata in Downtown Long Beach, was forced to close and reopen for dining multiple times last year under state rules. And while more people are now getting the COVID-19 vaccine and venturing out, Nasab believes it will be a long time before patrons will be comfortable eating indoors at a restaurant.
Nasab is one of many owners hoping a permanent outdoor patio will bring back business. He applied for a city permit last year and is now in the final stages of approval.
“It’s been a long process but it’s worth it,” he said. “We want to make sure we do it properly.”
Faced with a year of restrictions on indoor dining, many local establishments built outdoor patios along curbs and sidewalks last year under the city’s Open Streets Initiative, which allowed restaurants to set up temporary parklet space.
But they now face uncertainty as the initiative is set to expire June 30 when the state plans to lift most of its COVID-19 restrictions. In an effort to sway city leaders, one local restaurant group is circulating a petition to extend the outdoor patios indefinitely while the city works on a more permanent solution.
The petition, from the Long Beach Hospitality Coalition, had more than 500 signatures as of Tuesday, said spokesman John Edmond.
Edmond said many restaurant owners dipped into their life savings last year and spent thousands of dollars to build outdoor patios. Their businesses would be devastated if forced to tear down the patios after the June 30 deadline, he said.
“It’s going to take a multiyear approach to help them get back what they lost,” he said. “We’re facing a long road to recovery.”
Jennifer Carey, a spokesperson for Public Works, said the city has not yet decided whether to extend the June 30 deadline, but the department should know more in the coming weeks.
For now, restaurants can apply with the city for a permanent parklet, but many face additional restrictions including parking impacts, coastal zone laws and traffic safety, Carey said.
Long Beach as of this week has 107 temporary patios across the city and 12 pending applications for permanent patios, she said.
The decision to extend the deadline will ultimately be up to the City Council, but Mayor Robert Garcia said he supports the plan.
“The open streets and outdoor dining program has been a huge success and I support extending the program and making it permanent,” Garcia said in a statement. “We should work with interested small business owners and support these new spaces that have been so well received by the community. I expect the City Council and city staff will engage with restaurant owners and local neighbors in the weeks ahead.”
Meanwhile, the Downtown Long Beach Alliance is launching a survey this week that will poll hundreds of Downtown area business owners and stakeholders on what they would like to see moving forward.
The city last year closed off parts of Pine Avenue to increase foot traffic and help businesses. The DLBA, among other issues, wants to know how people would feel about a permanent closure.
For Jim Ritson, owner of the Bamboo Club, a popular tiki bar and restaurant on Anaheim Street, the extra outdoor space has been a lifeline.
Ritson spent thousands of dollars last year on a 2,000-square-foot tent in the parking lot after indoor dining was prohibited.
He said the tent saved him financially and also helped him to shift his business model to focus more on food service. While business has picked up, Ritson said his overhead costs have gone up as he’s had to hire more staff to run food.
Taking down outdoor spaces, he said, would be premature, especially with the rise in COVID-19 variants and some cities, like Portland, closing indoor dining once again after a spike in cases.
“The tent has been a huge help for us,” he said. “We’re hoping to at least get through this year.”
Editors note: The original version of this story said the Downtown Long Beach Alliance was releasing results of a survey this week, it’s actually starting to survey Downtown stakeholders this week. The story has been updated.
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