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California liquor bill aims to make restaurant parklets permanent, plus zones for open containers

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

A post-pandemic California could potentially feature permanent restaurant parklets, open-container zones in cities. and an easier road for opening pop-up restaurants, if a new bill introduced Friday is passed by the Legislature.

Sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the Bar and Restaurant Recovery Act, or SB314, would loosen certain alcohol laws throughout the state. The goal, Wiener said, is to give more flexibility to bars, restaurants and music venues in order to help them stay afloat.

“As we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel with this vaccine, we need to help these small businesses recover,” Wiener said in an interview. “Now’s the time to make common-sense changes to our alcohol rules that tangibly support small businesses.”

Hospitality businesses and their workers have been among the greatest casualties of the COVID-19 economic shutdown. Before the pandemic, San Francisco employed about 64,000 workers in bar or restaurant jobs, according to Gwyneth Borden, head of the Bay Area Hospitality Coalition, and she estimates that the workforce has been cut in half.

The bill would make permanent some of the changes that have been temporarily allowed since the pandemic began, such as allowing restaurants to serve alcohol in outdoor spaces like parking lots and sidewalks. It would also simplify certain permitting hurdles for pop-ups, make it easier for restaurants to get catering licenses and expedite the liquor license approval process. Also, music venues would no longer need to have full kitchens to get liquor licenses.

Wiener envisions a more “European” style of civic life in California’s future. In addition to the parklets and sidewalk seating, the bill proposes to allow multiple businesses with separate liquor licenses to serve alcohol in a shared consumption space — something that could be used indoors, like in a food hall setting, or outdoors, perhaps by two bars who share an alley.

It would also ease restrictions on hospitality businesses sharing spaces. Under current laws, if a bar were to rent out its space during the daytime to a café, the café would not be allowed to host minors. Wiener wants to change that, and said he had pop-up restaurants in mind as a particular beneficiary.

Some other emergency alcohol measures enacted during the pandemic, such as legalizing takeout and delivery cocktails from restaurants, are not addressed in this bill.

Passage of SB314 would not automatically implement any of these changes, but would rather give cities and counties the option of adopting them. Local governments would have to decide whether to put them into effect.

The senator has been on what he calls a quest to “modernize” California’s alcohol laws for the last four years. In 2018, he was part of a failed effort to extend alcohol sales from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. in cities including San Francisco and Oakland. But the pandemic “upped the ante dramatically,” he said, causing many hospitality businesses to shutter and many workers to lose their jobs.

His bill has bipartisan support, coauthored by Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) and Assembly members Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), Adam Gray (D-Merced), Carlos Villapudua (D-Stockton), Chad Mayes (I-Rancho Mirage), Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) and Eduardo Garcia (D-Imperial).

Ben Bleiman, owner of San Francisco bars Tonic, Teeth and Soda Popinski’s, said the bill would be a lifeline for small businesses like his. Even with outdoor dining, revenue at Teeth is down 60% and Soda Popinski’s is “barely scraping by,” he said. He was especially heartened by the possibility of speeding up the appeal and protest process for liquor licenses, which SB314 would cap at six months; the approval process for Tonic took two years, Bleiman said.

“If we want tax dollars coming back in, liveliness in our city and not vacant commercial corridors, we need to give opportunities to our businesses to survive,” said Bleiman, whom Wiener consulted while drafting the bill.

Critics of the bill will likely complain that making it easier to drink in public could lead to public safety concerns, not to mention nuisances for neighbors.

But Wiener rejected that logic. “People have access to all the alcohol they want now,” he said. “This isn’t about how much people drink. It’s about how much flexibility we’re giving to these small businesses.”

Here’s an outline of the specific proposals included in SB314.

• Sidewalk dining could be here to stay. The expansion of alcohol service into outdoor spaces like streets, parking lots, alleys and sidewalks, temporarily allowed during the pandemic, would become permanent if cities choose to allow it.

• Cities and counties could create open-container zones in which people can purchase and consume alcohol in public outdoor areas. This wouldn’t need to be 24/7 — open-container policies might be allowed in a given area only on weekend nights, for example, or only during a certain festival.

• Bars and restaurants could more easily share spaces with other businesses. This could allow a café to operate in a space during the daytime and a bar to take over at night. It could allow businesses with two different alcohol licenses to share operating space, which would help pop-ups. Separate businesses could also use a shared consumption space for their customers, either indoors or outdoors.

• The protest period for new liquor licenses, which now can last multiple years, would be capped at six months.

• Licensing for catering would become more flexible, making it easier for restaurants to apply for catering licenses and expanding the number of times they can provide catering services per year.

• A new type of liquor license specific to entertainment venues would be created. Currently, concert halls and nightclubs have to get restaurant liquor licenses, which requires them to have full kitchens. This would eliminate that requirement.