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By David R. Shorey, East County Progam Manager, Institute for Public Strategies

Photos courtesy Creative Commons

October 24, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) -- Drive down any busy street in an East County community and you’re bound to see people eating in a parking lot, on the sidewalk or even in the street. It’s a popular new thing we do to try to keep our favorite restaurants open during a pandemic. It also runs the risk of unintended consequences.

In May, California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) instituted new rules when it comes to restaurants being allowed to expand their alcohol service footprint to include adjacent outdoor spaces. Some East County cities quickly followed with programs and policies that allowed restaurants and food-serving bars to begin operating in outside areas adjacent to the original business.

Actions like these were applauded by business owners and patrons alike with many saying it’s what will keep businesses in business. It’s what allows chefs to keep cooking, servers to keep serving and diners to keep dining. It will also keep the drinks pouring.

Keeping Businesses Open

No one wants to prevent a business owner from making a living. It’s challenging enough when there is not a pandemic. We also acknowledge that the hospitality industry is one of the largest employers and tax bases for the county and contributes greatly to tourism. Now, with constantly changing rules, regulations and guidelines to meet a public health crisis, keeping restaurants and bars afloat has become even more difficult.

We do, however, want to mitigate any negative repercussions that come with new policies, a new operating environment, and with patrons who are focused on reclaiming a sense of normalcy rather than focusing on food and alcohol regulations. Restaurant owners and staff have to navigate all these issues and at the same time provide an enjoyable experience for their customers.

That enjoyable experience includes a safe environment that protects us from COVID-19 exposure; prevents the over service of alcohol and service to minors; doesn’t permit unwanted exposure to secondhand smoke; and is well maintained and lit to prevent accidental falls and injuries.

One of the things that we all can do to support our restaurants and food serving bars at this unique time is to bring attention to any issues that may be a threat to health and safety. The ABC and law enforcement can’t do it alone. Code Enforcement is not enough either. We have to do our part as consumers, community members and watchful citizens to help out where we can. The point is to not shut down operations, but to encourage operations that will ensure the restaurant or bar isn’t weighed down with warnings and infractions.

Areas for Improvement

The hospitality industry has taken steps to self-evaluate and identify where there are areas for improvement. The Responsible Hospitality Coalition of San Diego (RHC) has developed an Expanded Footprint Risk Assessment Form and with community members conducts surveys of dining establishments that also serve alcohol. Observers use the tool to record any violations including over service of alcohol; improper ID checks; whether patrons are being served alcohol without also ordering food; underage drinking; COVID-19 protocols, alcohol to-go policies; unlawful drink promotions; among others. This information is relayed back to the business owner to provide insight on what areas to address to ensure that they are operating in accordance with current guidelines and not in risk of being shut down.

It has been over 100 years since we have seen anything like this pandemic. These are confusing times, but we must make the effort to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t cause more harm. There are stories of cocktail bars with kitchens allowing patrons to drink all night without ordering food, just like in the pre-pandemic days when it was legal.

Enforcing Pandemic Guidelines 

Unfortunately, these situations don’t help an already chaotic situation. Yes, the rules can be confusing and ever-changing. It’s sometimes hard to keep track. Ultimately enforcement begins with the owner, managers and staff. But the patron has a role too.

One of the most direct things that you can do is reach out to the Responsible Hospitality Coalition (RHC) who will sit down with the owners and review current policies if you note any concerns during your outdoor dining experience. The RHC can be reached via email at

The ABC also has a role and that is to enforce California’s laws around alcohol. Any enforcement usually starts with a complaint. Even then, the ABC would rather handle the situation by talking to the violator rather than write them up or impose sanctions. To file a complaint, you can visit You can also get more information by calling the local ABC office at (619) 525-4064. The non-emergency numbers to local police or Sheriff’s Department (depending on location) can also receive complaints regarding illegal business activity.

So, it’s up to us if we want to keep our neighborhoods safe. We can help keep unruly situations from getting out of hand. We can make sure kids are not getting alcohol and drivers are not getting to-go cocktails that can contribute to drunk driving.

Together we can get through these pandemic times and perhaps come out of it with a renewed sense of community, public safety and importance of the role each of us can play as we recover.