Between residents’ hesitancy to dine indoors and restaurants’ desire to retain their expanded al-fresco seating, outdoor dining isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, even as the County powers ahead with reopening.

Outdoor dining became Santa Monica’s dominant recreational activity during the pandemic as new permitting processes allowed restaurants to spill out into parking lots, plazas, sidewalks, and streets. In the near future these programs are set to remain in place and the City is exploring options to make some of them permanent.

Indoor dining is currently allowed at 25 percent capacity, but both restaurateurs and residents have expressed reservations about participating. Last week a Daily Press survey of its readers revealed that only 30 percent of respondents said they intend on dining indoors in the next month.

While many restaurants have seized the opportunity to expand indoor service, several businesses with the financial ability to do so have decided to hold off on opening indoors.

“The majority of our employees are still in the vaccination process and we didn’t want to reopen indoors until we felt that our staff was well protected,” said Joel Dixon, COO of the Rustic Canyon Group, which owns nine local restaurants and is currently only offering outdoor dining.

Dixon said he was shocked by how quickly the County moved to reopen indoor dining and the group is deciding to move forward with staggered indoor dining room reopenings in April and May.

“We don’t want to be the guinea pigs opening our space too early with all the variants out there right now,” said Dixon. “When the stakes could be someone’s life, we haven’t been able to move quicker on something we can’t be 100 percent confident in.”

Currently many residents share Dixon’s concerns. On a scale of 0 to 10, with ten being highly comfortable, the average respondent of the Daily Press survey ranked their comfort with indoor dining at a 3.6.

Outdoor dining, on the other hand, continues to boom in popularity and not just for its safety benefits.

Many residents greatly enjoy taking advantage of Santa Monica’s excellent climate and dining in fresh air. In areas such as Main Street and Montana Ave, which have extensive parklet programs, outdoor dining has created a fun and flourishing open air social scene.

In the long-term both the City and restaurant owners have expressed interest in making al-fresco a permanent feature of Santa Monica.

“We are indeed looking at ways these things can become part of the longer term business environment and public environment,” said Francie Stefan, City chief mobility officer. “We are seeing how we can both celebrate public space as public and facilitate experiences in these spaces that include commercial activity.”

Many restaurants invested thousands of dollars into building their outdoor dining spaces and would love the option to continue using them after the pandemic.

“We are advocating for outdoor permitting to stay through the end of the year if not indefinitely — of course we want it to be indefinitely,” said Dixon, who spent between $10,000 and $15,000 building al-fresco set-ups for many of Rustic Canyon Group’s restaurants.

While permits for sidewalk dining pre-existed the pandemic, permits to expand outdoor dining into parking spaces, street spaces, parking lots and private property were new innovations. These permits are governed under the City’s emergency ordinance and will need to be reexamined if they are to become permanent parts of local law.

Stefan said the City will be surveying residents and restaurateurs for feedback on its outdoor dining program and eventually provide City Council with different suggestions for how the programs can be adapted in the future. One necessary step will be making parklets and other outdoor spaces wheelchair accessible.

Another rule that will need to be reexamined is the temporary permission restaurants have been granted to sell alcoholic beverages to-go by the City and Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Dixon said he strongly hopes this will continue as restaurants typically make excellent margins on alcohol sales and need this profit boost after an incredibly tumultuous and financially trying year.

Clara@smdp.com