Plan unveiled for reopening San Jose small businesses
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and regional business leaders on Friday proposed helping to reopen some small businesses — primarily restaurants — by allowing them to operate outside when shelter-in-place restrictions are eased.

The proposal, dubbed San Jose Al Fresco, would also allow businesses such as salons, cafes, gyms, yoga studios and other retailers to take advantage of the city’s sunny weather by setting up shop outside in public spaces such as parking lots, parks, alleys, plazas and streets, once Santa Clara County’s stay-at-home order is lifted.

Elected officials, including Liccardo and Councilmember Dev Davis, were joined by prominent business leaders Matthew Mahood, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Organization, and Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, at a virtual meeting Friday. Teresa Alvarado, the San Jose director for local think tank SPUR, and Katie Hansen, the senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association, also attended the meeting to advocate for the reopening of small businesses.

“We recognize that in a city with 300 days of sunshine a year we have a unique opportunity to offer a plan for greater resilience to the coronavirus challenge that is facing every single small business owner in our city and throughout the country right now,” Liccardo said at Friday’s meeting.

More than 70 percent of California’s restaurant workforce has been laid off or furloughed since the virus first spread, according to data from the National Restaurant Association, while Knies said the hit to the economy has shuttered all but roughly 6 percent of downtown San Jose’s 1,628 businesses.

“California’s restaurants are the cornerstone of every community and an economic engine that employs 1.4 million food-service workers and generates more sales tax — $7 billion annually — than any other industry,” Hansen said. “Due to the COVID-19 crisis, we are estimating close to 50 percent of restaurants have temporarily closed their doors and 1 million food-service workers are temporarily unemployed.”

That’s why Liccardo said the city needs to do whatever possible to “soften the impact” of the pandemic on the region’s workers.

The program would allow businesses to apply for the temporary use of public space and other areas for outdoor dining, exercise classes and business or retail operations — while complying with public health guidelines for social distancing. The city will partner with SPUR to identify areas for businesses to operate at and use the city’s Viva Calle event as a model to find suitable locations.

“Let’s take those lessons learned from Viva Calle as well as the benefits of reduced carbon emissions and traffic and expand them to local recovery zones,” Alvarado said.

Al Fresco was announced one day after Gov. Gavin Newsom previewed steps counties can take to reopen certain businesses and public spaces as they loosen the state’s stay-at-home order.

The state will allow counties to move slowly on reopening the economy, but county officials must notify state authorities about local intent to ease restrictions. Public health officials were not consulted on drafting the proposal, but Liccardo said many county officials would “like to see this happen.”

The county public health department could not be reached for comment Friday.

City officials want to green-light the program in anticipation of the county’s revised guidelines that will allow for the safe reopening of small businesses.

“We need to be prepared to get people back to work quickly and safely as soon as we get the all-clear from the county public health office,” Davis said.

“All this is in anticipation of protocols that may change and we expect will change,” Liccardo added. “We simply want to be ready.”

Business and community leaders hope the program will encourage residents to help stimulate the local economy while also avoiding the overcrowding of public beaches and parks.

But the move won’t be easy, as several leaders on Friday acknowledged the obstacles and legal hurdles of operating outside following a pandemic. Many operational kinks still need to be ironed out before the program could safely launch, they said.

“As we look to reopen our economy, businesses are going to have to adopt new health and safety policies to adapt to the new normal,” Mahood said. “If businesses can operate safely, over time the public will feel safe and they’ll return to their favorite restaurant, bar or retail establishment.”

City leaders will look for federal reimbursements and other funding to help businesses pay application costs and administrative fees to participate in the program. The city will also explore building low-cost infrastructure such as 3D barriers and potted plants in designated areas for legal alcohol consumption.

City leaders will discuss the proposal at a committee meeting May 13 before the City Council casts the final vote at its May 19 meeting.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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