Al Fresco Mill Valley
Scenes from outdoor dining, Concerts on the Plaza, Comedy in the Plaza (Sept. 22), Movies in the Park (Sept. 17 & Oct. 8) and the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival (Sept. 18-19). Photos by Bruce Forrester and Jim Welte. 

The COVID-19 crisis continues to make clear that it has no intention of going “Gentle Into That Good Night,” in the words of poet Dylan Thomas, with the delta variant surge the latest example of the virus’ indefatigability.

But despite the frustration that comes with indoor mask recommendations turning into mask mandates in a community in which 90% to 95% of 94941 residents have received at least one shot, depending on the census tract, there’s plenty to be joyful about.

The coming weeks look ripe for al fresco everything.

In early August, the Mill Valley City Council unanimously rejected a proposal to terminate its COVID-19 urgency ordinance on Nov. 30, as well as its related outdoor business program that has been a lifeline for dozens of businesses across myriad industry sectors. Instead, the Council pivoted, agreeing to extend the ordinance through at least June 30, 2022, a nod toward the massive popularity of the outdoor business uses – including al fresco dining, outdoor spin classes, live performances and much more – that have become some of the few bright spots of the past 17 months.

They did so in front of a packed Council chambers at City Hall, as business owners and residents turned out in droves to express their support for the program, particularly the necessity of maintaining it given the latest turbulence driven by the delta variant surge. Faced with vocal, widespread support from attendees and hundreds of letters submitted in advance in favor of extending the ordinance, Mayor John McCauley proposed a compromise of setting June 30, 2022 as the termination of the ordinance, and his fellow councilmembers backed the idea, noting that they could vote to extend it at that time if necessary.

Ronnie Unger and Evan Wolf, owners of The Store and The Local, told the Council that the outdoor business program has had cascading positive impacts for businesses beyond those directly taking advantage of it. 

“It helped not just the restaurants but everybody,” said Unger, noting that multiple retailers downtown have opened second locations during the pandemic because community support has been so robust. “It’s been amazing to see people coming into town specifically for that reason. It has trickled down all the way around town. Mill Valley Market is busy, we’re busy. We can’t lose that now. It gives our community hope.”

East Blithedale resident Andrea Ryerson called the program, and the vibrance it has spawned, “the best thing that’s happened in Mill Valley. She compared it to “another happy accident” – the 1992 earthquake that forced the Embarcadero Freeway to be taken down, “which transformed the San Francisco waterfront as a destination. If you rescind this program, it would be the equivalent of putting back up the Embarcadero Freeway.”

City Hall’s foresight was perfect timing, as southern Marin enters its “late summer” period when the weather typically gets warmer than it has been all summer. It also matches the always-busy fall calendar, when two of the biggest events of the year, the Fall Arts Festival (Sept. 18-19) and the Film Festival (Oct. 7-17), go live with an embrace of the outdoors. There’s also a slew of outdoor arts and entertainment, including Saturday evening concerts at the Miller Closure, last weekend’s Mill Valley Arts Commission’s Concerts in the Plaza and free Movies in the Park screenings of “Cars” on Sept. 17 at Friends Field and “Princess Diaries” on Oct. 8 at 7pm at Old Mill Park.

While City officials’ decision sets up our community for a vibrant fall season, they’ve also laid the groundwork for innovation well into 2022, as the Council agreed to have the Planning Commission quickly get to work on a program whereby businesses can apply for longer term, post-pandemic outdoor uses like sidewalk tables, parklets and other creative outdoor uses.

Planning Commissioner Kevin Skiles said he and his fellow commissioners are ready to help create such a policy, one “that is long lasting and responds to the needs of the community and businesses to have parking available but also to have the vitality that we’ve all really enjoyed.”

“It’s time to think way outside the box and to be very innovative about the way we think about our businesses in the future,” Councilman Urban Carmel said. “We are on the path to discovering what we can do better.”


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