Palo Alto could end on-street dining earlier than expected as city emerges from pandemic

The resiliency of some South Bay businesses could be tested again.

This comes as Palo Alto lawmakers consider resuming pre-pandemic traffic flows. Experts say the implications stretch far beyond Silicon Valley.

On Ramona Street in Palo Alto, just off University Avenue, there are a on-street dining structures that could become a crucible for what comes next.

"We’ve got 15 cities and towns here in Santa Clara County alone, and probably something like 100 cities and towns around the Bay Area who are going through these same conversations," said Joe Simitian, District 5 Santa Clara County supervisor and former mayor of Palo Alto.

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The discussions he refers to focused on if street dining stays or goes as communities emerge from COVID. On June 22, Palo Alto City Council will consider reopening closed roadways around University Avenue and California Street.

Initially, the plan was to keep this new normal until October. The COVID-fueled change allows patrons to dine outside instead of inside. It’s been a lifeline for many restauranteurs struggling to stay in business.

"It is expensive to rent, and buy, and the umbrellas and the heat lamps. Yes, it’s a big deal," said Stephanie Wansek, co-owner of Bistro Maxine.

But it’s also a big hurt for establishments missing out on vehicle traffic to ferry customers to their front doors.

Some experts said societal evolution may dictate the next direction.

"We’re becoming more of an urban area, and less of a sprawled out driving area," said San Jose State University strategic management professor Dr. Robert Chapman Wood. "People don’t think about the difficulties involved in that."

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Wood believes it could come down to positioning and street placement in the battle for renewed post-COVID success.

"It does seem premature to end this program. I would think at least through Labor Day would make sense for the restaurants given what they’ve invested," said Wansek. Added Simitian, "It’s a tough call. You know it works for some restaurants who are on the right street where the closures work to their advantage. Others aren’t on the right street."

The city council will have the final say, perhaps returning traffic and ending the outdoor experience as early as July.