San Jose businesses can continue operating outdoors through next spring and summer, thanks to a unanimous City Council vote to extend the city’s Al Fresco program and loosened restrictions on hours of operation.
Until now, outdoor activity was required to shut down by 10 p.m. but the new rules allow businesses to operate past midnight in downtown San Jose. The city is also letting businesses put up tents and install heaters on public and private property in preparation for colder winter months.
This gives local business owners options, given many are still uncomfortable with the idea of serving customers indoors.
“Businesses currently are scrambling to find ways to bolster their winterization endeavors by investing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in the infrastructure — tables, chairs, tents, heaters — to make it through the rest of the year,” said Nathan Ulsh, director of policy and operations for the San Jose Downtown Association.
He said these investments make it all the more necessary for the Al Fresco program to be extended through the summer.
“It’s paramount that we have some certainty for businesses. It would really be bad if it ended in December,” Ulsh said.
The program was set to expire Dec. 31. Now, businesses will be able to service customers in parks and plazas until March 31 and can use private property, sidewalks and city streets until June 30.
Tents over 400 square feet or canopies over 700 square feet will be allowed on private property and public sidewalks, with a permit. Businesses may also be required to put up barriers around their outdoor setups to ensure public safety.
Councilmember Pam Foley expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of the Al Fresco program, including noise pollution in areas that used to be quiet residential areas. But overall, city leaders agree Al Fresco has been positive for businesses during the pandemic.
“There’s no doubt the Al Fresco program is helping many of our small businesses to survive and that surviving keeps more people employed and earning paychecks and that’s a good thing,” Foley said.
On Oct. 14, Santa Clara County moved into the orange tier of the statewide reopening plan, meaning businesses such as restaurants, churches and museums could open indoors at 25% capacity or host up to 100 people — whichever is fewer.
Ulsh said Al Fresco must continue because limiting businesses to hosting at 25% capacity is not sustainable.
“While people are eating outdoors, they’re being corralled indoors after 10 p.m.,” Ulsh said, “which is kind of counterintuitive from a safety perspective.”
There are 106 businesses registered to operate outdoors on private property in San Jose. Twenty-six have permits to use parklet space and public sidewalks.
“Al Fresco dining and dining outside is something I think folks like to do — I know I enjoy it,” Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said. “I’ve often thought, ‘What happens after the pandemic?’ What part of this remains in place to allow businesses to move forward?”
Jimenez said the city will continue to explore outdoor dining programs even after the pandemic.
According to Kim Walesh, deputy city manager, there is no funding set aside for Al Fresco after Dec. 31 so the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services department will support the program through the winter.
“Providing the ability for businesses to comfortably extend their retail or dining operations outdoors during the upcoming winter will hopefully assist these businesses on their road to economic recovery,” said Walesh.
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