Written by Breanna Hardy
Assembly Bill 61 was written to assist outdoor dining and expand takeout and delivery options for restaurants, in accordance with state Covid-19 guidelines. Though it sounds like a step in the right direction, some think it’s still not enough.
Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills) says the bill has made progress. He and Senate Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) jointly introduced the bill on Dec. 7, 2020, and as of Feb. 17, it was re-referred to the committee on governmental organization.
Under the legislation, restaurants would benefit from the following provisions:
- — Waived requirements for fully enclosed kitchen and service areas, allowing increased airflow and new take-out windows
- — Allowing restaurants to take advantage of parking spaces for increased outdoor dining
- — Enabling “business activity districts” to lower speed limits to increase safety near outdoor dining
- — Temporary extension of California Department of Alcholic Beveral Control (ABC) regulatory relief, allowing expanded outdoor dining and alcohol sales to-go.
- — Flexibility on behalf of ABC to allow temporary changes to existing alcohol licenses
- — Allowing ABC to develop a licensing process to regulate alcohol delivery by third-party deliverers to ensure alcohol cannot be obtained by minors
- — Allowing coffee bars to set up and operate outdoors
AB 61 would empower local jurisdictions and the ABC to provide regulatory flexibility while restrictions are in place among restaurants across California. Gabriel said he will work with the California Restaurant Association and business owners.
“Neighborhood restaurants are the backbone of communities across California, but too many are barely hanging on by a thread,” said Gabriel. “Outdoor dining offers a lifeline that can help keep these establishments afloat, but we must do more to assist them during these challenging times.”
But it might not be enough to sustain restaurants to the degree needed.
Since April 2020, California restaurants estimate they have lost $6.2 billion in sales. Some 79% of owners in California reported that it is unlikely that their restaurants will be profitable in the next six months, and over a million employees have been furloughed or laid off.
Chuck Van Fleet, president of the California Restaurant Association, Fresno chapter, said that AB 61 is just a temporary fix to a bigger problem — not allowing restaurants to serve customers indoors.
Van Fleet also owns Vino Grille in Fresno, and has been using outdoor dining for the better part of a year, along with most California restaurants.
“They’re looking at temporary license, which means more applications and more fees,” Van Fleet said.
However, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new relief to Californians – part of which includes fee waivers for impacted licensees.
The budget proposal provides for two years of fee relief for roughly 59,000 restaurants and bars licensed through the state’s ABC that can range annually from $455 to $1,235. The agreement also reflects fee relief for more than 600,000 barbering and cosmetology license holders and businesses licensed through the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Van Fleet agrees with lowering speed limits around parklets and outdoor dining areas, but it doesn’t solve the permanent money loss that restaurants will have to make up for in the five to ten years to come.
“We need a permanent solution, and none of this would matter if we could just seat inside,” he said.
He is an advocate for seating customers inside, adding that restaurants are some of the cleanest environments.
“We are more sterile and more safe than when you get 10 or 15 people at your house. Because at that point nobody wears a mask, everybody drops their guard, they end up hugging goodbye,” Van Fleet said.
He said that a better solution would be Senate Bill 389, which would permanently allow to-go alcohol sales.
“Restaurants aren’t going to recover by 2021. I mean, we won’t recover for six to 10 years,” he said.
By allowing to-go alcohol sales, restaurants can increase their revenue when they’re allowed to seat inside.
“If we were open to 50% indoors, we wouldn’t have to worry a lot about these temporary fixes. The permanent fix if we’re 50%, allows us to sell alcohol to go, and that helps us make up for the other 50% we’re not allowed to seat,” he said.