Cars make way for outdoor dining on Santa Barbara's State Street; SLO considers similar plan

May 30, 2020

Now that one of Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfares is partially closed to vehicles, city officials hope it will help some restaurants and shops practice distancing, and start drawing customers again to stay afloat after weeks of pandemic shutdown. As of May 22, State Street is closed to traffic for eight blocks.

“If you have the social distance within a restaurant, and you tell the restaurants they have to remove half of the tables or a third of the tables, you know, restaurants are already on pretty thin margins, trying to survive at full capacity,” said Peter Rupert, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara who sits on the mayor’s task force on reopening. “And so this enables them to move to the outside to maintain social distancing and still be able to run a business.”

Rupert is executive director of UCSB’s Economic Forecast Project, a research department with a stated mission “to provide reliable economic, demographic, health, and environmental data and analysis to our community of citizens, government, business, non-profit, and other users.”

After Santa Barbara’s city council authorized the city manager to close down a portion of State Street, Rupert said he visited the area over Memorial Day weekend.

“I went down a couple days just to see how things were and, you know, I think people were respecting social distancing,” Rupert said. “I think the restaurants did a good job in spacing out tables. Most places weren't into the street yet, they were mostly on the sidewalk, and that's one of those things that's going to have to be worked out over time. “

As will the question of how far out into the street to safely space the tables, because that section of State Street is still open to bicycles.

Santa Barbara restaurants not along State Street are doing something else to expand. They now have the city’s blessing to convert nearby parking spots into parklets, where they can put tables and chairs.

Rupert said the closure may continue into the future.

“if it works—like many people hope it will work—I could imagine that [the city] would make it somehow more permanent,” Rupert said.”If we're seeing, you know, much more life down on State Street and businesses are able to survive, [city officials] are going to have to rethink having cars there.”

San Luis Obispo is also looking at closing downtown streets to vehicles so that restaurants and shops can stretch out their spaces—but no streets have been closed yet.

Of those who’ve responded to a current survey about the temporary use of public streets and parking spots for outdoor dining, a wide majority say they are very supportive of the idea. At least when it comes to using downtown city-owned parking lots, streets and parklets to do so. When asked about closing residential streets outside the downtown for distancing, just over half were in favor.

San Luis Obispo is accepting responses to the survey on creating more outdoor dining on closed downtown streets until 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 31.