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Outdoor dining gets a boost with closed downtown streets

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Eric He/Town Crier
Restaurants in downtown Los Altos set up tables on Main Street during the first day of street closures on Thursday.

The streets of downtown Los Altos looked different last weekend, with a trial run of the city’s plans to close vehicular traffic to help local businesses in place. The closure drew mixed reactions, with restaurant owners generally seeing an increase in business while retailers noted a decline in foot traffic and sales.

The Thursday through Sunday pilot program allowed restaurants to place more tables outside, creating additional space for patrons to honor Santa Clara County’s social-distancing protocols amid the shelter-in-place restrictions. Main and State streets were closed to vehicular traffic from First Street through Fourth Street. The Los Altos City Council, which approved the program at its last meeting, planned to assess its success at its Tuesday meeting, after the Town Crier’s print deadline, and determine whether to continue.

The city held two webinars with downtown business owners Monday to elicit feedback, with Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins on the calls. Bruins acknowledged the retailers’ struggles, expressing hope that merchants were willing to help each other in the best interests of downtown Los Altos.

The city also sent surveys to all business owners, asking them to compare the foot traffic and sales receipts last weekend to that of the weekend before and the same weekend dates from last year. The survey also asked whether businesses used the additional outdoor space. Restaurateurs were asked how many outdoor seats they added, while retailers responded to whether they had a line in front of their business and if customers had enough space to queue.

Khatchig Jingirian, president of Smythe & Cross Fine Jewelry on Main Street, said Saturday afternoon that sales were down 75% since Thursday. He added that he hadn’t seen some of his regular customers, and that he’d spoken with four other retailers who also experienced a dramatic drop in numbers. Jingirian said he saw people hanging out on the streets, but they weren’t necessarily shopping.

“It’s nice to see people walking outdoors,” he said. “But we forget the downtown is a business district, and unfortunately it’s become more of a park kind of atmosphere.”

Restaurants see boon

Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post restaurant in downtown Los Altos, arrived at her restaurant 8 a.m. Thursday in workout clothes, a bundle of excitement as she spaced diagrams provided by the city. She and her staff began moving tables onto Main Street, taking advantage of the first day of the street closures.

“I’m so excited,” said Breslin, looking at outdoor tables full of customers during the 2 p.m. hour. “I’m, like, skipping around.”

Breslin, who said her sales have dropped “tremendously” since closing to dine-in customers March 15 – a day before the county’s shelter-in-place orders – was fully booked Thursday night and expected to be busy all weekend, a sign of the public’s eagerness to return to dining out. Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Redwood City are among the nearby cities that have enacted similar measures to close off streets.

“This community that comes to The Post – people want to go out,” Breslin said. “If we’re not going to offer this, then they’re going go to a different city that is, so it would really hurt us.”

City workers gradually blocked off downtown streets Thursday morning. Signs mandating social distancing and face coverings were plastered on barriers, and orange cones directed cars to side streets. The city set up an information booth at the corner of Main and Third streets to provide handouts and answer questions from passersby. City architects checked with restaurants to see if they met the distancing requirements in between tables while also trying to help create enough space for more tables.

Breslin helped spur the city council’s unanimous June 9 decision to close the streets through a Change.org petition that has collected more than 4,400 signatures. She reached out to her network to inundate the council with emails, and she credited Bruins with pushing the plan through to reality.

Detractors weigh in

Not every business was supportive of the closure. Outside Brownhouse Design on Main Street, owner Julie Brown posted two large white sheets of paper with the words: “Street closure is hurting my business. There must be a better way that works for all.”

Brown, who said the pandemic has cost her more than half of her regular interior design business, did not like how the city council handled the closure’s rollout. She noted that some of her neighboring businesses didn’t know the street shutdown was happening, and that it will be a hassle for her to receive essential deliveries.

“We’re constantly ordering samples, products for houses,” Brown said. “Usually they’re time-sensitive and we have to bring them to a client or a job site.”

As Brown aired her grievances, a UPS driver arrived with a package for her. His plan for the weekend for downtown jobs: Park on one of the side streets and walk to deliver, which could take half an hour per stop.

Today’s the first day,” the driver said. “I don’t have a real heavy load on Main Street right now, but on a day that Cooks’ Junctions gets 30 boxes, it’s going to be a problem.”

Bruins conceded that for retailers whose products are not being placed outdoors, shutting down the streets was not their first choice.

“We understand that,” she said. “But their willingness – they’re willing to say, ‘Look, we’re all in this together. We all want our neighbors on the street to be successful.’”

Added Jingirian: “We’re part of this community and we have to work together. There’s not going to be a win-win situation. But we want there to be as close to one as possible.”

Breslin, too, acknowledged retailers’ worries. But she pointed to the camaraderie with her neighboring business. Maria’s France Italy England, a boutique next to The Post, let Breslin use space in front of its business to place more tables. Bumble, the cafe on First Street, gave her some umbrellas. In turn, she loaned tables to Sumo Sushi Boat on State Street.

The restrictions on restaurants during shelter-in-place orders may still be stringent, but allowing more space for tables – and thus more customers – warms Breslin’s heart. Patrons must wear face coverings when away from their tables, but obviously not while they are eating.

“To see people’s smiling faces and people happy to be out is, like, ‘Ahh, a sigh of relief,’” Breslin said. “Like, ‘OK, we can make it through this.’”

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