When the day comes that dine-in eating is allowed to resume in Monterey County, some large restaurants might be able to make the economics work after removing tables to comply with social distancing rules. They’ll have to balance wages, food, water and overhead costs with less diners bringing reduced revenue.
The small restaurants of Carmel, not so much. Six feet between diners in a tiny space would mean too few tables to make the opening worth it financially.
Which is why Carmel restaurant owners lined up virtually on Tuesday, May 12, to encourage the Carmel City Council to move forward with a proposal to close off two street blocks to traffic and fill them instead with dining tables.
City Administrator Chip Rerig said during the meeting that he was inspired by his experience working for the city of Monterey, when Monterey’s city manager at the time, Fred Meurer, traveled to Monterey’s sister city, Dubrovnik, Croatia and saw the outdoor cafe seating on the European town’s picturesque streets. That experience led to Monterey allowing outdoor seating in public right of way spaces on Fisherman’s Wharf and Alvarado Street.
The idea, Rerig said Tuesday, is to open up Carmel’s village for “culture and commerce” in the age of coronavirus and beyond as the state slowly reopens. He and Mayor Dave Potter walked downtown and met with a group of restaurant owners to discuss experimenting with outdoor dining while 25 of the town’s 52 restaurants are offering takeaway service during shelter-in-place.
He proposed shutting down Dolores Street from Sixth to Seventh Avenues (and crossing Ocean Avenue). It’s a stretch that’s often closed down for festivals and special events.
The next phase of the experiment, once the shelter-in-place order is eased or lifted and dining out is allowed again, the city might then allow smaller restaurants to serve outside on sidewalks or in parking spaces.
It was an idea that was hailed by several owners as a good first step in helping them toward economic recovery. David Fink, who owns Aubergine and Cantinetta Luca, called this the “scariest of times” in the careers of Carmel’s restaurateurs and encouraged the council to move forward with the idea and set up a committee to fine-tune it.
There were owners who complained that allowing outdoor dining on Dolores Street might not be fair to restaurants blocks away and some residents suggested there were too many unanswered questions like who would be responsible for maintaining the tables, alcohol around children and who would police diners not abiding by social distancing rules.
Councilmember Jeff Baron said he couldn’t support it until dine-in service is restored because it might encourage people from outside of Carmel to come out to eat, thereby sidestepping the health order.
Councilmember Bobby Richards was poetic in his support of the idea. Recalling the old proverb, “For Want of a Nail,” he adapted it: “‘For want of a nail a shoe is lost, for want of fairness a kingdom is lost.’ I just want to get something going.”
Potter was pragmatic, telling the council, "If businesses don't succeed financially, then we don't succeed financially."
The mayor made a motion directing city staff to research some of the questions raised by speakers and councilmembers during the meeting and come back with a more detailed proposal. The motion was approved by general consensus.