Laguna Beach extends pandemic-prompted outdoor dining until 2024

Alessa’s diners sit during the lunch hour on the Promenade at Forest Avenue on March 17, 2021. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach will allow restaurants to keep temporary outdoor dining until 2024 as a hedge against unanticipated surges of COVID-19 cases.

The City Council unanimously voted on Nov. 10 to start levying outdoor dining fees from restaurants to help recover city staffers’ time spent overseeing the program.

“This is a humanity issue,” Councilmember Peter Blake said. “This is an issue about people going out and enjoying themselves. When we opened the parklets, we not only helped some restaurants but we actually helped the residents who were cooped up in their houses.”

Twenty-two restaurants have set up tables and chairs in private parking lots, common commercial space, and sidewalks. Another nine are using parklets built over on-street public parking spaces.

City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said city staffers would need to further study lost parking revenue to have an accurate tally of the parklets’ cost to the taxpayers. The council majority has so far held that protecting the long-term sales tax stream from restaurants and avoiding blight from closed storefronts is worth the short-term costs.

The bottom line for restaurants is an annual fee partially based on square footage will total about $2,200 per parklet. Restauranteurs using larger parklets along the Promenade at Forest Avenue can expect to pay about $4,500, Senior management analyst Jeremy Frimond said. These fees are scheduled to kick in on July 1, 2022.

Mayor Bob Whalen said the fees should at least recover lost parking revenue and recommended revisiting the fees in 2023.

Several restaurant owners expressed their gratitude for the city’s support during the pandemic and encouraged continuing outdoor dining.

Chris Keller, owner of Ristorante  Rumari and Marine Room, said his downtown bar was closed for 18 months because of health restrictions on serving alcohol indoors.

“When we did reopen on June 15 we literally opened with four bartenders—that’s all we could hire,” he said. “We’ve had challenges galore since day one [of COVID-19] and I feel like now were finally have our footing.”

His team continues to serve Rumari customers only outdoors with a reduced staff.

Tanya Tra, owner of The Warf, said added costs of propane for outdoor heaters and more expensive labor is eating into her profits.

“I have a lot of old people coming in and if I don’t have the outdoor [space] they would not sit down. They will walk away,” Tra said. “This isn’t just about business only. It’s about helping people [get] through a hard time.”

Kay Ayazi, co-owner of Sueños Laguna Beach, opened her new Ocean Avenue eatery in September and has purchased heaters and new furniture for her parklet.

“We’re fortunate because we have a patio space on the side but if you walk by you’ll see our inside is completely empty and our customers are waiting to sit outside,” Ayazi said. “Although some of us feel the Covid situation is OK and has leveled out our customers do not and they prefer to sit outside even in the winter.”

Weiss initially questioned whether private businesses really needed public property to stay afloat but ultimately voted to extend the outdoor dining program.

“I love outdoor dining, I support the parklets but people have to pay their fair share for them and I don’t know that they’re really hurting,” Weiss said. “No evidence has been brought to me saying we’re all about to go out of business, we’re doing 50% of what we did last year.”

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