The Laguna Beach City Council directed city staffers on Tuesday to proceed with most parts of an economic recovery plan designed to stop the financial hemorrhaging experienced by Laguna Beach merchants due to the pandemic.
Among the initiatives approved by councilmembers is spending up to $25,000 on a conceptual design to temporarily close Forest Avenue from Coast Highway to Glenneyre Street to traffic allow outdoor dining and entertainment.
After talking with a group of Laguna Beach restaurant owners, Councilmember Sue Kempf said restauranteurs who rely on in-house dining won’t be able to pay their bills with seating capacities reduced by up to 75% to comply social distancing guidelines.
“There’s no restaurant on Forest Avenue that’s going to open unless we close Forest Avenue [to cars],” Kempf said. “The reason is those restaurants are too small. They won’t be able to social distance and they won’t be able to stay open. It’s as simple as that.”
The proposal for communal tables and chairs on Forest Avenue would be an around-the-clock closure for an unspecified duration over the summer, Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said. The temporary street closure would suspend access to about 40 parking spaces.
The Planning Commission would need to approve a temporary use permit for the lower Forest Avenue plaza proposal before it can be implemented, Dupuis said. The City Council is expected to review a preliminary concept at its May 26 meeting.
Details about who will be responsible for sanitizing tables and policing loiterers have yet to be worked out.
For some residents and business owners, the proposed closure of Forest Avenue is a rehash of a controversial plan that was considered at Laguna Beach City Hall a few years ago.
Fresh Produce sportswear store owner Anne Krizman said every time Forest Avenue is closed her sales go way down.
“I find offense in that some of these ideas are not new ideas,” Krizman said. “Many are contentious issues that have been around for a long time and we should not be using this virus to push agendas.”
A majority of the council members also signaled their willingness to accommodate restaurant owners’ requests for temporary outdoor seating throughout the city.
Roux Creole Cuisine partner Michael Byrne said in a phone interview Wednesday that implementing social distancing at his Glenneyre cuisine would require cutting his 39-seat capacity in half.
“Being cut back by 50%, or even 25% is brutal,” he said. “Tasteful, complaint outdoor seating whenever available would be an asset for any restaurant to pick up some volume that we’re losing from social distancing.”
To follow social distancing guidelines, Ristorante Rumari would need to cut 60% of its indoor seating, owner Chris Keller said in a phone interview Wednesday. Without an allowance for outdoor seating, these seating requirements would make it impossible for the restaurant to turn a profit, he said.
“The summer is when we make the money to get us through the rest of the year,” Keller said. “The response from the city council [to outdoor seating] has been extraordinarily positive. I’m very positive where we stand today and what could happen in a short period of time.”
After several residents argued that city leaders were backpedaling on a promise to postpone debate on controversial issues, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said Laguna Beach doesn’t have the luxury of infinite time to study remedies for the pandemic’s economic fallout.
“We need to take steps and we need to take them now,” he said. “They will not be perfect. We will make mistakes. Trade-offs will occur.”