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More dining moving outdoors as Santa Rosa closes stretch of Fourth Street

Rachael Heim and her boyfriend, Michael, wanted a last hoorah when it came to Friday night’s dinner plans.

With news that Sonoma County had been placed on California’s coronavirus watchlist, and with a flurry of state-imposed restrictions on restaurants and other businesses looming, the pair set out for date night in case it might be the last one for some time, Heim said.

Their trip to Belly Left Coast Kitchen & Taproom on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Rosa coincided with the first night of closures for a portion of the street, where several families and pairs flocked to partake in alfresco dining said to hold fewer risks for spreading the coronavirus compared to eating indoors.

Barricades blocked cars from driving onto most of Fourth Street from B to E streets, clearing space in front of restaurants for outdoor seating. Like the diners who surrounded them on a wooden patio at the restaurant, Heim and her boyfriend sipped and ate from a table stationed out on the street.

“I heard stuff might be closing again, so I really wanted to take advantage of it,” said Heim, 31. “It’s much quieter, which really makes it more enjoyable.”

Santa Rosa follows in the steps of Oakland, Boston and other cities across the country that have shifted to street dining in recent weeks in an effort to draw patrons back to restaurants hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Locally, the shelter-in-place orders and concerns about gathering in public spaces has led to a deserted downtown core, and in turn a decline in overall business, said Gerard Nebesky, owner of Gerard’s Paella, located on Fourth and D streets.

“It’s been hell,” said Nebesky, who last November announced he planned to shut down his business, claiming the area’s homeless population and parking hassles were keeping customers away. “I think for restaurants, (outdoor dining) is the only way to operate. If it’s done right.”

The downtown street closure also comes ahead of the anticipated prohibition on indoor dining countywide anticipated as soon as Monday, the result of the county landing on the coronavirus watchlist.

A cluster of other counties across the state made the list earlier this week, though they were allowed to continue with outdoor and to-go food service.

Fourth Street restaurateurs and staff say they hope the street closures will be enough to reverse what they describe as months of stalled operations and declining visits to their businesses.

The city has launched a number of beautification projects to boost the area’s appeal to customers, among them the building of wooden parklets for outdoor dining that is expected to pick up steam Sunday afternoon, said Cadance Hinkle Allinson, executive director for the Downtown Action Organization, an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce.

A call for artists is underway to bring music and artwork to the Fourth Street area through the summer as well, an effort that’s being funded by Santa Rosa’s Arts in Public Place Committee and the group Creative Sonoma, Hinkle Allinson added. The street closure is scheduled to last until Oct. 15.

“This has been successful for restaurant areas in a number of other cities and is especially important now because of the fact that indoor dining is likely going away,” Hinkle Allinson said. “This gives restaurateurs the opportunity to continue serving our community.”

But some business owners worry the changes won’t be enough to draw patrons to the area amid financially precarious times.

Among those skeptical of the street closure is Positively Fourth gift shop owner Randy Harris, who had far fewer customers come into his business on Friday compared to the day prior, he said.

He worried that the lack of nearby parking paired with the slow rollout of the outdoor eating may have been to blame, Harris said.

The Beer Baron Bar & Kitchen, for example, appeared to be the only restaurant on his block to expand seating into the street as of early Friday afternoon, he said. Restaurants such as the nearby El Palomar and Mary’s Pizza Shack hosted customers on their patios later that evening, though seating had not spilled into the street.

“I don’t see any other business taking advantage of the closure yet, so why are we closing down all these parking spaces?” Harris said. “A lot of my business is actually people driving down and seeing my door is open, or people who are walking by shopping.”

At Mac’s Deli next door, owner Toraj Soltani said he was waiting for the construction of a parklet in front of his business scheduled for the end of the week before moving service outdoors.

Hinkle Allinson said a group of volunteers was scheduled to build those dividers on Sunday for six businesses who were interested in expanding their downtown seating.

Only one such parklet, located outside the Belly restaurant, had been constructed in time for Friday’s dinner service, she said.

Soltani will then need to figure out how to utilize the space while accommodating for social distancing, as well as to get a realistic idea of how many of his customers would be interested in sitting outdoors for breakfast and lunch, the time of day the deli operates.

“I’ve seen some restaurants that have been getting tables too close and we won’t be doing that,” Soltani said. “It’s a question of dollars and cents versus safety.”

He added that expanding seating outdoors has become an increasingly attractive option in recent days, as Sonoma County restaurants face restrictions on indoor dining as a result of being placed on the watchlist. A need to keep his family’s business going is another factor.

“Since we’ve been doing indoor dining, we’ve recovered a little bit of business, but we’re still less than 50% of our normal,” Soltani said. “With indoor dining potentially going away, of course outdoor dining will be more attractive.”

Santa Rosa resident Cindy Mendenhall, 63, and her husband were another couple who set out to Fourth Street for a bite to eat Friday night.

They sat on the edge of a concrete fountain as they finished the last of their 90-minute wait for a table outside Russian River Brewing Co.

They wanted to visit her favorite restaurant but hadn’t realized the street closures had already begun until they arrived.

“I hope other people will come and take advantage,” Mendenhall said. “I like the feeling of being able to walk freely in the street and the clear air.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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