Outdoor dining is back on, but San Jose restaurateurs are confused and frustrated
San Pedro Square Market depends upon foot traffic for its business. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Struggling restaurants had found a lifeline in San Jose Al Fresco, an outdoor dining initiative, but confusion stemming from the state denying — and then approving — the county’s application to reopen businesses sent many of them reeling. 

“Having outdoor seating has really helped bring back a little bit of what’s normal for us and helped dramatically for the restaurants,” said Chris Arkley, assistant general manager at the San Pedro Square Market, in a recent interview.

The city had already begun opening the streets for outdoor dining, which was allowed by the county’s June 5 health order, when armed state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents raided restaurants in South County and claimed they were not allowed to operate either inside or outdoors. County officials stood by the decision to allow outdoor dining, but California denied the county’s application to reopen more businesses, including hair and nail salons, gyms and spas, by Monday.

Days later, the state reversed course and approved the county’s application. The decision reaffirmed outdoor dining for restaurants countywide.

California grants approval to move into the four phases of reopening the economy in each county based on whether they meet certain criteria related to COVID-19 case counts, testing and contact tracing. Santa Clara County was initially denied reopening because it landed on a watchlist for its rate of hospitalizations, though the number remained relatively low.

The county has since been removed from the watchlist.

But Arkley said the state’s weekend enforcement against outdoor dining caused unnecessary panic for struggling restaurants.

“It only adds to confusion and apprehension for both our employees and guests,” Arkley said. “We have been open and operating for over a month with clearance from the county, and (the alcohol agency) agents come in saying the county is in violation.”

Armed California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents warned Ladera Hill in Morgan Hill to shut down on Friday, July 3. Photo courtesy of PRxDigital.

Alcohol and Beverage Control spokesperson John Carr said that no citations were issued in Morgan Hill where agents on July 3 met with restaurant owners to ensure compliance with the public health orders. 

“Agents just told businesses in Santa Clara County that their county does not have attestation yet,” Carr said. 

Carr said agents will continue statewide inspections “to keep communities safe and remind licensees to take the necessary precautions to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”

After Santa Clara County reopened outdoor dining on June 5, city leaders approved permits for restaurants to serve diners on patios, sidewalks and privately-owned parking lots. 

“The city has been working on ways to relax various permits and regulations to make it easier for businesses to utilize the space outside their facility for dining and customer service,” said Blage Zelalich, downtown manager of San Jose’s Office of Economic Development.

The Al Fresco initiative allows restaurants with liquor licenses that include patios to serve food and alcohol on the patios.

Restaurants with alcohol licenses for their indoor business only may offer curbside alcohol service, but can’t serve alcohol in outdoor areas until they seek further approval.

“Al Fresco dining … has been good for bringing some small measure of vitality back to downtown’s more active corridors,” said Nate LeBlanc, a business development manager at the San Jose Downtown Association. “It has helped bring some money in for local restaurants and provided a sense of normalcy for the restaurants and their patrons.”

LeBlanc said he empathizes with the confusing and difficult circumstances faced by many restaurateurs and business owners. His group has tried to connect them with resources to help.  

Eddie Truong, director of government and community relations for the Silicon Valley Organization, said that marketing, thinking outside the box and collaboration is essential for restaurants and businesses, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s important we allow restaurants to expand outdoors and find ways to revive their customer base,” Truong said. “Every restaurant needs to figure out how to increase their marketing collaborations and create a safe reopening plan so they can continue operating and slowing the spread of COVID-19 at the same time.”

In addition to the confusion over compliance, the pandemic has financially devastated many local mom-and-pop businesses. For some restaurants it’s cheaper to stay closed due to fixed costs and low customer foot traffic.

“We’ve always had a thriving downtown, but with no events and businesses driving lunchtime sales, they’re not doing so great,” Arkley said. “And the changing regulations have been really challenging.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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