Crowds: People are flocking to the Pier on weekends. Clara Harter

A lively promenade, bustling restaurants, and packed pier, scenes from Downtown on the weekend seem like a fever dream of pre-pandemic living.

Except, it’s not a fantasy, but a fact: Downtown Santa Monica’s pedestrian counts are routinely surpassing 2019 levels on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes by over 15 percent.

Most beach parking lots are full by 11 a.m. on the weekend and collectively they are operating at 120 percent of normal occupancy for this time of the year. The Pier has reached capacity multiple times and the Promenade has hosted around 100,000 visitors every Saturday in April.

Transit levels in Downtown have also spiked. Scooter trips have tripled since January, while traffic citations are up by 99 percent from April 2019 and by 2,743 percent from April 2020.

This a welcome change as downtown uniquely suffered from the pandemic punch of losing 30,000 office workers, a huge market of international tourists and riots.

“There’s no sugarcoating it, this past year has been absolute agony,” said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica. “Businesses and property owners are on their very last nerve. It has been absolutely grueling.”

As the weather warms and Covid cases continue to fall, the steady uptick in visitors has been a boon to businesses.

“We’ve been seeing a drastic increase the last few weeks in terms of visitors, especially from the locals, and indoor dining has been so impactful. It’s been a blessing,” said Peter Trinh, owner of Lanea Mexican restaurant.

While Downtown was one of Santa Monica’s hardest hit neighborhoods, it appears to be one of the fastest to draw people back.

“Thinking about our location and our infrastructure, there’s a lot of things about Downtown Santa Monica and Third Street Promenade that have us poised for robust recovery,” said Rawson.

Downtown remains somewhat sleepy during the week, signaling that a full scale recovery will still take some time. In April, pedestrian counts on the Promenade Monday through Thursday were roughly one-third to a half of weekends.

“There’s still a lot of room for growth during the weekdays but as offices start to open up and more individuals become further vaccinated, I’m optimistic about the growth,” said Trinh.

Bars and the nightlife scene are only just beginning to show signs of life, having been subject to some of the strictest shutdown and reopening regulations.

“The recent increase in visitors has been minimal, maybe up 25 percent. The weekdays are dead, Saturday is good, and Sunday is so so,” said Steve Lieberman, owner of West 4th & Jane gastropub. “It will take years and our televisions back on before we see numbers like 2019,” he added, referring to the County health order barring the use of televisions in bars and restaurants.

Lieberman also said that if the City removed outdoor dining permits once indoor capacity is back at 100 percent, recovering businesses would be “screwed”.

Current conversations among business organizations and City Council members indicate that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, given how valuable al-fresco dining has been to the local economy.

“For years our Promenade pedestrian count has peaked on both weekdays and weekends at three o’clock in the afternoon. The fascinating thing is now with all the outdoor dining on the Promenade, we have a second peak religiously happening at 7 and 8 p.m,” said Rawson, who mentioned that DTSM was strongly interested in retaining outdoor dining.

Officials and casual visitors said the neighborhood’s streets are palpably jovial during busy times and with CDC regulations allowing fully vaccinated individuals to shed their masks outdoors, smiles abound for the first time in a while.

Clara@smdp.com