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Can outdoor dining help rebuild Little Italy restaurant income?

Outdoor dining became necessary during the pandemic. Some owners in San Diego want to make their temporary structures permanent to recoup lost revenue.

SAN DIEGO — Outdoor dining helped keep Little Italy restaurants afloat for nearly a year. Now, many owners hope temporary structures will be allowed to remain in place as restaurants rebound.

“Outdoor dining has been vital for our restaurant. During this pandemic if we didn’t have outdoor dining, I think we would have been in a big-time danger,” said Dario Gallo, owner of Civico 1845. “Having a space to do so literally saved our business.”

The Little Italy Association of San Diego helped erect structures in parking spaces to make diners feel comfortable and safe. It is trying to convince the city to allow them to remain indefinitely even as restaurants begin to add back indoor capacity.

“The outdoor dining will allow them to expand even more than they had previously and allow them to them make up for lost funds from 2020,” said Marco Li Mandri, Chief Executive Administrator of the Little Italy Association.

San Diego County was permitted to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity last month under the red tier. It will expand to 50% whenever the county moves to the orange tier.

The additional capacity will likely mean more competition for parking in a neighborhood where most restaurants do not have their own lots and where many spaces were converted into dining areas.

“I think the whole point was a balance. How do we keep it vibrant and keep people employed, allow restaurants to make money and then rebuild the economy of Little Italy? We did that because we redid the parking spots and spaces that balance will continue to exist,” said Li Mandri. “As time goes on, a year, two, or three it’ll be up to the restaurants if they want the indoor and outdoor taking up the parking so we’re feeling our way through this as we go along.”

There is no tier where restaurants can open at 100% capacity under the state’s current Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Although Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to discuss later this week adding a new “green tier,” which would permit additional indoor activities.

Since it takes counties at least three weeks to move through each tier, it’s likely outdoor dining will remain for several months.

It will also take time for customers to feel comfortable dining indoors again. Gallo said diners were leery about eating indoors the last time San Diego was in the red tier. Now, with more people getting vaccinated, some are asking to sit inside although he plans to keep outdoor dining as long as possible.

“We’re in San Diego. We’re lucky to have this weather every month of the year, so I would keep this outdoor setup for the rest of the year and forever if it’s possible, honestly,” said Gallo, a native of Italy. “It’s nice to be outdoors. It reminds me of Italy where we seat people right on the street, in the piazza so it makes the ambiance feel more authentic.”

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