Burlingame’s outdoor dining scene proved too popular for its own good, according to frustrated officials who pulled the plug on a program promoting inappropriate partying during the pandemic.
“It just kind of turned into a festival out there with people not doing what they need to do,” said City Manager Lisa Goldman, in advance of councilmembers voting 4-1 to reopen Burlingame Avenue to traffic.
The vote Monday, Aug. 17, undoes a previous decision by councilmembers who blocked traffic through the central shopping district over weekends to provide space for businesses unable to serve diners indoors.
But in the wake repeated reports of revelers refusing to wear masks and disregarding social distancing expectations while gathering in groups around the outdoor tables, officials elected to halt the program.
“We have to end the situation we created, and I’m convinced we made a mistake,” said Councilman Ricardo Ortiz.
Beyond health concerns with potentially contributing to coronavirus spread, officials noted the uninterrupted closure of Burlingame Avenue also led to conflicts between pedestrians and bikers or skaters.
Furthermore, critics pointed to a recent survey of local businesses which offered mixed perspectives on the success of the closure program, with some merchants claiming it made their lives more difficult.
So rather than provide a forum for unhealthy behavior, Ortiz said he favored a proposal for establishing a network of parklets where restaurants and eateries could set up tables in a more controlled environment.
The parklets created by large barricades would consume a few parking spaces in front of each business willing to commit to serving diners outdoors for at least three nights per week.
Noting the alternative is an imperfect solution which will result in the loss of parking in an area already constrained for spaces, officials hoped the parklets could provide a lifeline to local businesses in a safer fashion than the previous model.
With the rest of his colleagues in favor of shifting from the street closure to parklets, Councilman Michael Brownrigg said he could not support shuttering a popular program which attracted patrons from across the Bay Area.
“I think it is really neat that everyone comes to Burlingame Avenue, I just wish they were doing it safely,” said Brownrigg, the lone dissenting vote.
Brownrigg said more enforcement targeting those refusing to wear masks or social distance should be attempted before officials opt to end a program serving business struggling during the pandemic.
Vice Mayor Ann O’Brien Keighran disagreed that police resources should be dedicated to monitoring health and safety protocols, but did call for greater oversight from officials to assure the parklet program runs efficiently.
“I think we’ve crated a carnival environment on Burlingame Avenue that encourages the flouting of rules,” said Ortiz. “There are no masks worn, large groups of all ages, tables set apart in a way that are not 6-feet apart and I don’t see the police department walking up and down the street giving out tickets to the large number of people who are not wearing masks, so I’m convinced we need to stop the closures and move to parklets.”
Under that direction, officials also agreed that hair and nail salons and other personal care services shuttered by the pandemic can operate in some limited fashion outside as well.
Businesses along Burlingame Avenue that were forced to close when the county went back on the state’s watchlist may open up into nearby public parking lots, alleys and parklets — so long as they are not near outdoor eateries, said officials.
Jaki Berry, an advocate for the beauty and salon industry, was skeptical there will be an appetite for such an obscure working arrangement against her interest in providing an outlet for an industry ravaged by the pandemic.
“If we can help a few, it would help somebody,” said Berry, noting many businesses have been forced to layoff staff and pay high rents all while being subjected to the state’s inconsistent industry regulations.
Councilwoman Donna Colson shared a similar perspective.
“I don’t know there are a lot of nail salons that will even want to do this,” she said, noting the challenges associated with meeting all the health and safety standards while still establishing an inviting environment for clients.
O’Brien acknowledged the program is not ideal, but she favored attempting it in hopes of assisting struggling merchants.
“We are trying to think outside the box and provide as many opportunities as possible for these businesses,” she said.
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