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Outdoor Dining Grows In Popularity In Santa Barbara, But Some Restaurants And Bars Still Struggling

Downtown Santa Barbara is seeing an an increase in restaurant and bar activity after allowing sidewalk, and street seating. Some are calling for expansion of bar hours, and making the al fresco dining permanent.

It’s Saturday night.  In fact, it’s Fiesta Saturday night in Santa Barbara.  Restaurants and bars are busy.

People are wearing masks, and some are social distancing.  It’s hard, with so many people here on what’s become one of the city’s hot spots, the 500 block of State Street, which has become a temporary open air plaza with al fresco dining.

Several blocks of State Street as well as some side streets are closed to traffic, with the restaurants and bars not only setting up seating on sidewalks, but in the street.  It’s an effort to expand outdoor seating to keep the businesses in business. 

With coronavirus health orders shutting down indoor seating, the choices are this, doing takeout, or shutting down completely.  Restaurants and bars are trying to make the best of the situation.

Jason Jones is one of the owners of the Red Piano.  It’s a popular singalong piano bar.  Jones says this year has been a roller coaster.  The Red Piano was shut down from March through June during the first big coronavirus related shutdown.  It reopened in June, but then closed again after health officials said they couldn’t have a live piano player performing, because the singalongs could spread the virus even with people social distancing.

Now, with an outdoor deck added on State Street, the Red Piano has reopened for the third time.  The health orders allow bars with outdoor seating to reopen if they also serve food. The idea is to prevent people from staying out late drinking, because that often leads to groups of people who aren’t wearing masks, or social distancing.

Santa Barbara was one of the first communities in the state to try the expansion onto sidewalks and the street.  Some people like it so much they think it should be permanent.

But, there are issues.  Some businesses off of State Street say they aren’t getting the same traffic as a few prime blocks of the downtown area.  And, because of the ways the rules are being implemented, some businesses can’t stay open as late as others.  We circle back to the Red Piano at 10 p.m., which before coronavirus would have been open until 2 a.m.  It has to close in street and sidewalk seating at 10 p.m., which means it is losing it’s most lucrative hour of business, from 10 to 11.

Co-Owner Jason Jones says it’s frustrating.  He says if they could at least stay open until midnight, it would make a big difference.

But, even if the city extends the al fresco dining indefinitely, and even if some of the bars are allowed to expand hours, there’s another factor.  What happens when the beautiful warm nighttime weather gets chilly, or foggy?

A task force chaired by former Santa Barbara City Councilman Hal Conklin has been looking at the situation, which some call a problem turning into an opportunity. There are calls to make parts of State Street into a permanent promenade, closed to traffic.   But, there are questions about helping restaurants and bars not in the prime State Street area, the weather, and of course whether the city sees closures as a practical permanent step. 

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