Outdoor and patio dining, clockwise from bottom right, at Gravity Tavern, Floodwater, Piazza D’Angelo, Playa and – for consumption of takeout from any restaurant, on the Depot Plaza. Courtesy images.

Let’s go al fresco!

The Mill Valley City Council unanimously approved a resolution and an urgency ordinance Monday night allowing Acting City Manager Alan Piombo and his staff to approve applications from restaurants and other businesses for permits, variances and license agreements on a temporary basis until at least the end of November for outdoor uses. 

The move is designed to provide businesses with additional ways to use outdoor space to compensate for the loss of indoor space due to social distancing requirements related to the COVID-19 crisis. The City’s staff report and related documents are available HERE

The decision Is effective immediately, and restaurants and other businesses seeking to use outdoor public or private spaces can file applications to do so starting Tuesday. The approval comes more than 10 weeks since the first shelter in place order effectively shut down restaurants for everything except takeout and delivery service, Mill Valley residents have outdoor dining options to enjoy a meal in a safe, measured, socially distanced way.

“Our local businesses have been taking a beating since the first shelter in place order went into effect in March,” Piombo told the Council in opening the hearing.

“I’m deeply concerned about our restaurants in town,” added Vice Mayor John McCauley said, pointing to the oft-repeated data point that it takes 2-3 takeout meals for a restaurant to generate the same revenue from a single dine-in customer. “They are really a major part of our vibrancy. I have been trying to eat out way more on a takeout basis, and as I do, it has been extremely depressing. There is nobody there. They are not going to make it unless the community steps up and supports them.”

To that end, County of Marin officials said late last week that restaurants could open for outdoor dining on June 1, a last minute announcement despite all indications that restaurants would have to wait several more weeks for the opportunity. However, City of Mill Valley and Mill Valley Chamber officials had been working for weeks to lay the groundwork for such a possibility, hoping to give restaurant owners ample time to prepare.

Led by Piombo, McCauley, Councilmember Urban Carmel, Piazza D’Angelo co-owner and Mill Valley board chair Felicia Ferguson and City and Chamber staff, the group created a framework for restaurants to choose from a range of options to utilize the outdoor space around them. The options were driven by input from dozens of restaurant owners, and fall into three categories:

  • Private use of private space (adding seating in private parking lots like those of Bungalow 44 and Mill Valley Lumber Yard (Watershed, Flour Craft, BOL) and the small Miller Ave shopping center downtown that contains BooKoo, for instance).
  • Public use of private space (adding seating and/or parklets in parking spaces, on sidewalks and surrounding areas). 
  • Public use of public space (allowing people to consume their takeout in the Depot Plaza, socially distanced), as well as in other similar public spaces. Customers will be required to maintain social distancing and take their trash with them when they leave the plaza.

Those options will likely be altered or expanded upon as conditions change and in response to the needs of restaurants and their customers. The same framework will be available to other business types like retailers looking to expand onto the sidewalk and fitness gyms looking to hold outdoor classes, once those uses are permitted.

“Government tends to be breaks, but in this case, you want to be gas and let’s make it as easy as possible for our restaurants and commercial businesses,” McCauley added.

“This is a pilot program and it’s exciting,” Carmel added. “The businesses are excited about doing this thing, and the community is very excited about this. There will be a lot of things that we’re going to have to figure out – we will have to be light on our feet and problem solve as we go along. But we are pretty far ahead on this thing.”

“We are extremely grateful to the City for their efforts in expediting the creation of a framework to help our restaurants choose from a variety of outdoor dining opportunities, as well as a clear process to do so,” said Ferguson. “The City has shown the requisite sense of urgency for this moment and has been a fantastic partner in doing the heavy lifting around the myriad legal and logistical issues related to these new options.”

Given the late arrival of the news on outdoor dining, many local restaurants will continue to focus on takeout/delivery in the coming days as they move towards adding a range of outdoor dining options. Look for news in this space soon on those new outdoor dining options from restaurants around town.

Per the County of Marin’s guidelines on outdoor dining, seated tables will be limited to no more than 6 people, all whom must  must be within the same household group. As expected, there are significant requirements related to sanitization.

Indoor dining is expected to get the green light in the coming weeks along with extensive guidelines for both restaurants and their customers to follow to ensure a safe experience for all involved. Stay tuned.

“If our residents can get comfortable that the social distancing restrictions in place will allow them to eat dinner outside at restaurants safely, and if you’ve got the economic capacity, I would urge our citizens to get out and support outdoor dining – and the use of the outdoors by other businesses as they take advantage of it,” McCauley said.

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