Picnic Time

Restaurant table service is forbidden under stay-at-home rules, but that has not stopped diners from eating takeout food at spots like San Carlos Beach in Monterey.

You’ve seen them: the man perched on the hood of his car in Carmel, eating a burger. The couple (and a seagull, naturally) sitting on a bus stop bench in Pacific Grove, dipping into a plate of fish and chips. The friends snacking on fries out of a paper to-go box in the garden behind Alta Bakery in Monterey. The Dec. 13 shelter-in-place order shut down outdoor dining at tables serviced by restaurants, but people are still eating takeout outdoors and in public.

They’re just doing it on the curb, at the bench and in the park.

Janine Chicourrat, chair of the Monterey County Hospitality Association, thinks this situation is silly. “It just isn’t right,” she said, during public comment at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Jan. 5. “I’m appealing today to be a little creative.”

Chicourrat’s concept? Formal picnicking infrastructure. “There’s opportunity there,” she says, to create designated spaces for people to eat that comply with social distancing guidelines and meet sanitation needs as well. Chicourrat imagines this idea being tackled on a city-by-city basis.

“In one little town, it might be best just to block off a street, and strategically put tables socially distanced, and have sanitizing stations and garbage cans. That might be what one city chooses to do,” Chicourrat says. It could also be an opportunity for restaurants to get some use out of the outdoor dining infrastructure that they poured time and money into over the summer. “Another city might say – you can fill back up your parklets, but you can’t service them like you’re running your restaurant. And you can’t limit them to just your restaurant to-go food, you have to allow other people to come randomly sit and enjoy it like they’re picnicking.”

Asked if she has approached any local mayors with this concept, Chicourrat laughs. “Just my husband [Carmel-by-the-Sea Mayor Dave Potter],” she says.

Potter, it turns out, is on it. He is bringing issue before Carmel City Council on Jan. 20 (after the Weekly’s print deadline), looking to formally OK the opening of parklet seating to picnickers. The current situation “really doesn’t make any sense,” Potter says.

One compelling reason for the move is better waste management – the city has seen an “immense amount of litter” from people picnicking on to-go food, he says. The parklets, in contrast to curbs, could be equipped with trashcans and recycling bins.

Over in Monterey, Mayor Clyde Roberson has other things front of mind. “Currently, the city is working diligently to stop the spread of the virus and following state and county guidelines by encouraging people to wear masks, wash hands and maintain social distance,” he says via email. “With our current decimated budget, we aren’t in the position to start new programs or infrastructure.” In Pacific Grove, Mayor Bill Peake said he’s “not aware” of any efforts to create new outdoor dining structures.

Ric Encarnacion, acting bureau chief of the county Environmental Health Bureau, says local law enforcement may have rules against outdoor picnicking, but it isn’t something his office would deal with. “We don’t regulate private citizens,” he says. He does, however, want to encourage people to stay home as much as possible and avoid gathering with people from outside their households – controlling Covid-19 is “all about prevention,” he says.

Rules on outdoor dining across the country differ widely, reflecting different risk management approaches. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, outdoor, spaced dining is safer than indoor, spaced dining but not as safe as takeout. Because eating involves taking off one’s mask, it necessarily comes with added risk of transmission of Covid-19, especially if people are dining with others outside their bubble.

Potter and Chicourrat are also thinking about health in their quest for easier picnicking, but approaching it from a different angle. “People are still going to socialize, that’s our nature,” Chicourrat says. “By taking this away, you’re actually forcing people to go indoors.” If people are going to eat outdoors anyway, why not give them safe and clean places to do so?

“Let’s have a humane place for people to go and sit outside,” she adds.

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