Gaslamp to close Fifth Avenue to cars this weekend; will throngs of diners, revelers show up?
Planned street closure follows similar one in Little Italy last weekend as part of larger citywide effort to expand outdoor dining space for restaurants in wake of COVID-19
In a move to help resuscitate business for restaurants hit hard by COVID-19, the Gaslamp Quarter plans to close a four-block stretch of Fifth Avenue from Thursday to Saturday, essentially converting the heavily trafficked thoroughfare to patio dining.
The planned closure, which will remain in effect until midnight each of the three days, follows a similar weekend experiment by Little Italy in which the neighborhood association closed down five blocks of India Street between Beech and Grape streets for five hours on Saturday. It also comes nearly a week after the reopening of bars last Friday in San Diego County — a move that, in the Gaslamp, drew heavy throngs of people, many of them sans masks, crowding the sidewalks.
To avoid a repeat of last Friday night, it will be up to individual restaurants and shops to exercise control over their patrons and enforce six-foot spacing between pedestrians, as well as facial covering requirements mandated by the county public health department, said Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association.
The upcoming closure will make that a lot easier, Trimble said. Under a special event permit expected to be granted to the association in time for this week’s street closing, Fifth, between G and K streets will be closed from 3 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays and Fridays and from noon to midnight on Saturdays. A second phase, starting July 1, would allow the Gaslamp to widen the closure to encompass the stretch between F and G Streets, starting July 1.
“The restaurants have to take the responsibility of managing the lines more diligently because we’ll definitely have more people but now we’ll have the space to do that,” Trimble said. “One of the biggest problems on the weekends over the years is the sidewalks are extremely narrow in certain places, where the bars and restaurants are. You get 30,000 people on the weekend and walking there can be very difficult.”
More significantly, with more real estate to move dining and shopping out to the middle of the street, businesses struggling to make a profit amid strict capacity limitations, can now expect to attract more customers, Trimble said. Because of a special exemption granted by the state department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control, liquor can now be served within the patio areas located within the street right-of-way, he pointed out.
“It’s been a very difficult time — three months without business, so this is another way to attract people to come downtown and shop and dine with the comfort of social distancing,” he said. “Each restaurant can have their own patio extension, 10 feet from the curb, with socially distant tables and a creative barrier to delineate the patio from the street. No alcohol can leave the patio.
“I’ve been in constant contact with my merchants and plan to have multiple Zoom calls to make sure everyone who participates knows the rules and is on the same page.”
Joe Santos, a co-owner of two Fifth Avenue restaurants, Havana 1920 and El Chingon, said that opening the street to dining will be a vast improvement over last Friday evening, when lines to his restaurants wrapped around the corner. He also expects he’ll have room to seat about 20 percent more diners.
“The biggest benefit of this is to allow people to walk down the street because we were hitting real capacity,” said Santos, who plans to spruce up his streetscape dining tableau with palm trees and outdoor couches. “That should expand the capacity on the sidewalks, which was a free-for-all last Friday. For us, every seat is another seat we didn’t have before.”
The closure of streets via the existing special event permit process is part of a wider initiative the city of San Diego is hoping to launch soon that would expand opportunities for more outdoor dining and shopping. It plans to draft special legislation that the City Council would consider allowing individual businesses and associations to temporarily use streets, sidewalks, and private parking lots for conducting business outdoors.
In the meantime, the North Park Main Street association says it is close to getting a special event permit approved to close two one-block sections of 30th Street between Upas Street and Myrtle Avenue and also between University and Lincoln avenues Thursday through Sunday during peak business hours. Other neighborhood associations seeking such permits to close down streets are the East Village and Downtown Business Improvement Districts and the La Jolla Shores Association.
While Little Italy was not overwhelmed by crowds last Saturday and many visitors abided by the county’s public health directives, there were many others who did not, acknowledged Marco LiMandri, chief executive administrator of the Little Italy Association. When the “Al Fresco” dining program resumes this Saturday, it will add hand sanitizer stations on India and offer complimentary facial masks to those who do not have any, he said.
Nearly two dozen restaurants participated in the outdoor dining initiative and after next weekend when it will reprise the street closure, the association will regroup to determine how to proceed next, LiMandri said. The hope is to continue the program on successive Saturdays, he said.
“There were a number of people walking in the street who didn’t have masks, so people have to understand, this is real,” LiMandri said. “The key thing is the balance. We want to bring enough people to fill the restaurants through reservations but we also have to be cognizant of physical distancing and people wearing masks. But the only way to bring crowds back to restaurants in a safe manner is to close streets.”
Dario Gallo, owner of Civico 1845 on India, said that the Saturday street closure was a definite boon to his business, bringing his allowed capacity to nearly the same level it was prior to the pandemic lockdown. He acknowledged, though, that he had to personally remind customers waiting outside to maintain proper distancing and to not crowd the entrance.
“This brought us to our regular numbers, so this is amazing,” said Gallo, who took the extra step of taking the temperature of his customers. “The association did this to help us restaurants financially but at the same time it’s been a great success to see restaurants taking over the streets and creating this European and Italian ambiance.”
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