As soon as next week, three blocks of Menlo Park's primary downtown thoroughfare, Santa Cruz Avenue, will be closed to allow restaurants and shops to spill onto the street.
The Menlo Park City Council signaled wide support Tuesday night, June 16, for a plan vetted by the city's Chamber of Commerce to close down several blocks of Santa Cruz Avenue — a cluster where a majority of the street's restaurants are located — to allow downtown restaurants greater opportunities to offer outdoor dining and shops the ability to showcase their wares outdoors to enable more social distancing among customers.
The council also voted to streamline the process for other restaurants across the city to offer dining in outdoor areas usually used for parking. Typically, it takes 90 days for businesses to receive an outdoor dining permit, according to city Management Analyst John Passmann.
The three blocks of Santa Cruz Avenue set for closure, running from University Drive to El Camino Real, are from Evelyn Street to southbound Crane Street, from northbound Crane Street to southbound Chestnut Street and from Curtis Street to Doyle Street.
The Chamber of Commerce developed the plan to allow for good vehicle, bike and pedestrian circulation, said chamber President and CEO Fran Dehn in an email to the city. Restaurants that already have outdoor dining space will be allowed to expand into adjoining spaces, and those without it can have the new opportunity to offer outdoor dining, she said.
"It is so important we send this lifeline to our businesses," she added.
Other restaurants that may be downtown but aren't along Santa Cruz Avenue, such as The Refuge, Ristorante Carpaccio and Cafe Del Sol, would have to apply for encroachment permits to offer outdoor seating, but the process would be streamlined.
More than supporting downtown businesses, closing the street is a step for public health, argued Councilman Ray Mueller.
"We're still in a pandemic," he said. "We're looking for a way to make it safe for people to enjoy downtown."
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton proposed public health measures being utilized in Europe to accompany outdoor dining – requiring people to have their temperature taken and mandating restaurants collect a name and phone number for each party so that they can be contacted if someone they were in contact with tests positive for COVID-19.
The measures could prompt greater confidence in the health and safety measures being taken and encourage more people to venture out, she suggested. "Everybody has a right to know that they're not sitting next to someone that has a very high fever that's potentially ill," she added.
Other council members pushed back, arguing that while those aren't bad or onerous public health ideas, they should come from the county public health department. Mandating that restaurants in Menlo Park enforce those policies could be a challenge for restaurant workers and result in unpleasant exchanges with customers, Vice Mayor Drew Combs said.
He added that Santa Cruz Avenue, unlike other areas where shutdowns are being contemplated, is a key transportation thoroughfare, and many people use it for utilitarian trips to the hardware store or pharmacy. For those users of the street, the closures could prove to be a nuisance. But he still supported the measure to support downtown businesses.
Mayor Cecilia Taylor suggested adding hand-washing stations and developing measures to help salons and barber shops offer social distancing.
The pilot program is expected to launch next week. After 45 days, the City Council plans to check in to see how the initiative is going and if any changes should be made.
There is not yet a dedicated budget for the proposal; the city is working on tracking down materials to close the street, and the plan is to make businesses cover material costs for expanding outdoors.
The idea was first publicly suggested months ago by Cafe Zoe owner Kathleen Daly, after which council members Betsy Nash and Mueller worked on a subcommittee to develop the idea.
Nash and Mueller said they'd initially favored closing down the length of Santa Cruz Avenue.
But not all downtown businesses were on board, and the Chamber of Commerce collected input and developed their proposed partial-shutdown compromise.
"We are all operating at 20%, 25%, maybe 35 or 50% if you're lucky," Daly said Tuesday night.
Allowing restaurants to be creative in offering outdoor seating in the coming months could help those restaurants stay alive, she said.
"I encourage the city and everyone to just get behind it for a little while so we can figure out and navigate in our industry how to move forward," she added.
The move follows in the footsteps of many other cities, including neighbors in Palo Alto and Redwood City who are adopting similar programs to support small businesses decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and enhancing their ability to serve customers more safely.
"All the other cities around us are doing this," Mueller said. "We're not being mavericks. Candidly, we're last."
The council is set to review a resolution and finalize a few more of the initiative's details at its next meeting, tentatively scheduled for Friday, June 19.