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City Council Reaffirms Closure of Outdoor Seating Areas

Jan 06, 2021 09:13AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

An outdoor "parklet" over the weekend before the city moved to close the public eating and sitting areas.

The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday night affirmed the closure of the outdoor sitting and eating areas known as "parklets."

The closure of the outdoor public seating had been announced on Saturday after a decision by the council's COVID-19 Long Term Business Solutions Ad Hoc Committee with councilmembers Steve Napolitano and Richard Montgomery.

Since the announcement of the closure, restaurant owners and some community members had questioned the need for the action.

But with additional support for the closure of parklets from Councilmember Hildy Stern, it became clear that if the issue came up for a vote by the full council, it would be upheld by a vote of 3-2, with Napolitano, Montgomery, and Stern in support of the closure. 

Mayor Suzanne Hadley and Councilmember Joe Franklin had both indicated that they would vote to reopen the parklets. But as it was apparent that there were not enough votes to change the policy, no vote was taken on the issue. 

Parklet Decision Explained

Napolitano explained the subcommittee's decision by pointing out that it was the subcommittee itself that had come up with the idea of the parklets. But he said that with the parklets, the city had become "a victim of its own success," having drawn diners from all over who were drinking, eating, and lingering maskless in groups. 

The rising number of cases in Manhattan Beach, plus the hospitals being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and a regional shortage of oxygen for COVID patients added to the decision to close down the parklets, he said.

"This is about reducing gatherings to reduce risk. That’s why we’re having this surge," said Napolitano. "We thought this was a reasonable response to those factors."

Napolitano noted that he thought the real answer was to go back to outdoor dining, which was much more strictly regulated and controlled, but closing outdoor dining was a county decision.

"There are no good answers here," he added. "For all those people who think we don’t know what the restaurant owners are going through - I know them personally. There’s a lot of anguish here."

Montgomery noted that the city had gone from 421 cases in the beginning of November to 835 cases in the beginning of January. "We all swore an oath" to public safety, he said, and closing the parklets was a necessary step to keeping the city safe. "This is absolutely the right thing to do and I have no regrets about it whatsoever."

Stern urged councilmembers to "rethink the conversation" and shift the discussion from how to contradict the county, to what it takes to support Manhattan Beach restaurants.

"We know what it takes to support restaurants economically," said Stern. "They need us to spend money in their restaurants. They need to support their employees. That takes patronage, that takes customers. Order food and carry it out. Eating it in front of a parking spot isn’t what kept restaurants viable; spending money at a restaurant is what kept restaurants viable."

Hadley acknowledged that the subcommittee "did not take the decision lightly" but said she would have decided differently. 

During the discussion, Hadley and Franklin both expressed gratitude to Napolitano and Montgomery for the subcommittee's foresight in creating the parklets, and in giving the restaurants and shops the additional business inspired by the parklets throughout the month of December.

"I know you’re not trying to kick the restaurants. But you’re spooked by COVID. We’re all spooked by COVID," Hadley said.

Napolitano shot back: "The decision wasn’t about being 'spooked.' It was a rational response to a situation."

He continued: "Councilmember Stern made the best point: Don’t stop supporting restaurants. It was 'to go' before we closed the parklets, it‘s 'to go' now. Support the restaurants; put your money where your mouth is."

Outdoor Seating Areas Had Come Under Fire

The issue dates back to early December, when the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health moved to suspend in-person outdoor dining. In response, the city of Manhattan Beach opted to repurpose specially built outdoor dining areas as public seating areas.

The goal was to encourage customers to support the local business community while providing a socially distant and safe place to relax and enjoy the holiday shopping experience.

However, the outdoor dining areas quickly became unofficial gathering spots at a time when public health officials had been desperately trying to discourage gathering.

The policy immediately drew scrutiny from county officials. Los Angeles County Health Officer Muntu Davis wrote in a letter to the city of Manhattan Beach that the public use of the dining decks violated "both the letter and the spirit" of the county's public health order.

“By placing tables and chairs adjacent to restaurants, the city of Manhattan Beach is both violating and defeating the purpose of the county’s order and decidedly not safeguarding public health,” Davis wrote.

Nevertheless, the parklets remained opened through the new year until the city finally shut them down on Sunday night, January 3. 

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