Opinion: For restaurants to reopen, L.A. should turn streets into outdoor cafes


When Los Angeles starts allowing businesses to reopen in the coming weeks and months, the city could take a cue from Lithuania.

In an effort to help dining establishments open for business while still maintaining safe social distancing, Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius, is planning to let restaurants and bars turn plazas, squares and streets into a giant open-air cafes, the Guardian reports.

The Health Ministry has allowed restaurants to reopen, but only with outdoor seating and tables spaced at least six feet apart. That’s a challenge for businesses in the city’s picturesque old town, which has narrow streets that could accommodate only a table or two.


By opening up public spaces for tables and chairs, that gives restaurateurs the option of serving more customers and, hopefully, keeping their struggling business afloat. It’s also a change for the city, which rarely used plazas and squares for outdoor dining before the pandemic, according to the Independent.

Of course, Lithuania is very different from Los Angeles. But L.A. could take some inspiration from Vilnius’ willingness to experiment with public spaces to help the city return to some safer version of normalcy. How about closing off parking spots or lanes to cars on some neighborhood commercial strips, so restaurants and cafes could place more tables outside? Or perhaps closing some less-traveled streets so people have more space to exercise outdoors while still socially distancing?

Turns out a range of charlatans out there are peddling industrial bleach as a cure-all.

This wouldn’t be uncharted territory for Los Angeles. Several years ago the Department of Transportation launched “People St,” a program that allowed nonprofits and community business groups to apply for the right to convert a piece of city street into a plaza, a small park or a row of bike racks. The ambitious program resulted in new plazas in North Hollywood, Silver Lake and Leimert Park, but it’s been discontinued.

It was a good idea to reclaim some streets for mini parks, pathways and outdoor dining before COVID-19. Now? As communities relax their stay-at-home orders and businesses start to reopen, there will be even more urgency for L.A. and other cities to give people lots of space to be outside, safely. The risks of transmitting the coronavirus appear to be lower outdoors in the open air and sunlight compared with being indoors in a contained space.

But in a big, crowded urban region it can be hard to find enough room to socially distance. And it’s only going to get harder for people to stay cooped up inside as the weather gets warmer. Just look at what happened last weekend, when Orange and Ventura counties reopened their beaches: People flocked to the coast. Gov. Gavin Newsom scolded beachgoers for not adhering to physical distancing guidelines. Newport Beach officials are now considering closing the beaches there.

Public spaces will eventually reopen. We can’t create more beaches, but we can create more shared outdoor spaces that are safe and pleasant.