By Tim Tunks
A drive down Main Street in Santa Monica looks a lot better now that the sad, beat-up cement K-rails lining the roadway have a fresh coat of blue paint and some long-awaited ‘Art Elves’ are sitting in the bike lanes applying their colorful thematic decoration to several of them. But I’m afraid it will take a lot more than fresh paint to prevent disastrous business losses from which many won’t recover.
All outdoor dining is now shut down until four days before Christmas at the earliest. The still-functioning eateries have perfected their takeout operations, so with a mostly deserted street, driving by to get freshly prepared food packed properly for travel is an even better bet for us consumers. However, restaurants’ continuing losses remain substantial if not insurmountable.
A reliable source recently informed me that many Main Street restaurants want to open up the whole street when these new forced closures are over. What a fine idea! Without the traffic lanes carving out the piazza’s center, outdoor dining areas would have a lot more room for safe, socially distanced patrons to enjoy a meal. A safe distance between each selective group would be a powerful attraction. More space to serve more people with greater safety is surely a winning combination. But it seems there’s too much resistance from a few vital players to permit sensible change.
Although emergency and service access could easily be provided with lightweight movable traffic barricades and sensible table layouts, there are still mobility issues to be resolved. A major one is the private automobile’s role, both when outdoor dining eventually returns and on into Santa Monica’s future. My opinion is that a Main Street with its pavement repurposed for people is the best solution for three weeks from now and three years from now as well.
We got the parklets and traffic lanes as the convenient speedy compromise the decision makers felt would gain approval. The immediate emergencies they saw last spring drove an urgency that has since lost its momentum. The deadly threat we face can’t be considered a temporary condition anymore. COVID-19 is not a hoax. It’s a terrible shame we can’t institute improvements.
The science is clear that virus-carrying airborne aerosols transport disease from the carriers to the receivers, and we now know that one out of every 145 people in Los Angeles County carries enough virus to infect others. At least a third of those carriers walk about with no symptoms whatsoever. How do you like those odds?
What should a sensible outdoor dining re-opening look like? How about a plan to open up the safest areas first? If safety criteria qualified different outdoor dining configurations for lifted closure orders, Culver City would certainly be among the early winners because of all the open, well-ventilated space their traffic lane repurposing created. Santa Monica’s Main Street parklets would score poorly because they concentrate virus transmission for patrons and sidewalk pedestrians alike.
Like a stubborn man-child without a GPS who took a wrong turn several miles back and won’t ask for directions, Main Street wanders into dangerous neighborhoods. Too stubborn to follow the signs that established science has posted, those with the power to affect improvement are unwilling to admit the old restaurant/bar model for success—a customer density that excites the appetites—must now be discarded to reduce community transmission and bring business back.
It’s a shame that seeking something better has been subsumed by efforts to defend something worse.
Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest opinion column for community members to voice their views on local matters and does not represent an editorial position or endorsement by The Argonaut. The opinions, experiences, research and data analysis expressed in this article are the author’s own. Have a unique point of view on a neighborhood matter or a national issue with a local twist? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.