Most restaurants in west county have been eking out a living doing take-out since they were forced to close on March 17 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But like the rest of the county, restaurants are opening up. On May 22, a county health order allowed restaurants to resume outdoor dining. On June 4, the county announced that restaurants could resume indoor dining as well.
Restaurants must adhere to a raft of precautions for both indoor and outdoor dining, including the following:
- Tables must be at least six feet apart.
- No more than 10 people per table and all of these must be from the same household.
- Servers must be masked and must wash their hands frequently.
- Restaurants must also ensure social distancing for customers who are waiting to be seated or who are ordering and picking up food.
Because spacing tables six feet apart dramatically reduces the number of people that restaurants can serve, the Sebastopol City Council decided to increase the amount of outdoor space available to restaurants by allowing them to expand into private parking lots and public rights of way, such as sidewalks and street-side parking spaces.
At the June 2 city council meeting, Sebastopol City Planner Kari Svanstrom presented a plan to increase areas for outdoor dining for restaurants, which the council approved unanimously.
Svanstrom said all of these solutions require “limited time encroachment permits,” good only for as long as the COVID-19 emergency limits how restaurants would normally do business. She also said the city had created a simplified form and streamlined process to make applying as easy and quick as possible. It has also waived all fees for the permit.
“We know a lot of business owners are trying to figure out how they can operate within the county order and also maintain a successful business, and we want to support that as much as we can as a city,” Svanstrom said.
Of parking lots and public rights of way
Restaurants with private parking lots can now, with a temporary permit, use up to 25% of their parking lot or two spaces (whichever is greater) with no review required. Staff review is required for using up to 50% or four spaces (whichever is greater) in private parking lots.
Restaurants can also apply to use a portion of the public sidewalk in front of their establishment (and in front of their neighbor’s establishment as well, if they have their neighbor’s permission). Sidewalk use is subject to certain minimum requirements, including maintaining clearances for pedestrian travel and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Restaurants must also have liability insurance for the new areas.
“We’re thinking of places like Martha's Mexican restaurant, which has a back patio, but if they wanted to put something out on the street to be able to accommodate more people and space people out more, they could use the sidewalk,” Svanstrom said.
Return of the parklet
Thanks to the new rules, Sebastopol restaurants can also turn on-street parking spaces into outdoor seating areas.
In 2019, Sonoma West wrote a story about a quirky local project to turn parking spaces into mini-parks or parklets. Now that project is being used as a model for what restaurants might do.
Looking at a photo from an earlier parklet experiment (see above), Svanstrom commented, “If they're going to use the parking space as parklets, they need to have a way of barricading it so it's safe for the people who are out there. The barrier makes it so people don't mistake it for a parking space at all. And of course, it would need to be temporary, something that could be put up and then taken down easily.”
One of the most obvious places to create parklets would be along Sebastopol’s major thoroughfares like Main Street (Highway 116) and Highway 12, but these streets are actually under the jurisdiction of Caltrans, not the city.
“We know dealing with Caltrans can be onerous for individual business owners, so the city’s engineering manager is working with Caltrans to allow restaurants to create ‘parklets’ at on-street parking spaces within the Caltrans right-of-way, along Main Street in particular,” Svanstrom said.
Svanstrom again stressed how simple the application is and short the processing time will be compared to traditional city permits.
“The whole point is to give restaurants more flexibility,” she said.
If restaurants owners have questions about this program, they should contact the planning department at firstname.lastname@example.org.