Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

Many restaurant owners don’t understand regulatory layers and risk running afoul of laws

By Marco Polo Cortes, Owner of Marco Polo Permits 

October 15, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) -- Restaurant owners say that outdoor dining has allowed them to survive the recent COVID-19 closures. Since August 31, restaurants in San Diego County can serve customers indoors – but only at 25% capacity. Sidewalk cafes and “parklets” can allow these struggling businesses to provide outdoor dining, but there are many misconceptions about the rules.

Various cities such as El Cajon and San Diego have made it easier to get outdoor dining permits during the public health emergency – but restaurant owners should not assume that a City permit is all they need. A parklet transforms curbside parking spaces into a place for restaurants to set up tables and serve people outside. The idea is to give businesses more room to make money amid new social distancing restrictions that disallow indoor dining in restaurants.

Restaurant owners reach out to me because they are confused about exactly what they need to operate legally in an outdoor space, like a sidewalk café or a parklet. It is important to realize that there are multiple layers of rules. Even though cities are bending over backwards to make things easier, there are State, County and Business Improvement District rules, as well. Restaurant owners need to be aware of all the requirements – or risk being shut down again.

As one example, the City El Cajon is among many local cities that has tried to make it easier for restaurants to expand into outdoor sidewalks and parking spaces. Under the current emergency order, El Cajon has provided a no-fee Temporary Use Permit for outdoor dining. However, restaurants should be aware that if their proposed outdoor dining is in the right-of-way, they will still need to go through the City’s Engineering Department for approvals. Meanwhile, there are additional rules set by the County Health Department and Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). Business owners must comply with all of these rules or can face steep fees and penalties. 

Meanwhile, for businesses in the unincorporated areas, the County of San Diego has issued guidance on how it is providing enforcement flexibility during the emergency order – making it easier for restaurants to adjust outdoor seating areas and use parking lots for dining, among other changes. Similarly, the City of San Diego recently streamlined the parklet application process for retailers and restaurants and has waived some fees.

My company, Marco Polo Permits, has fielded dozens of inquiries from restaurant owners and has processed more than 17 successful parklet permits in East County, South County, North County and the City of San Diego, under the emergency order. 

Here are some common misconceptions by businesses seeking a parklet permit.

Common Misconceptions About Parklet Permits

  1. “If I have a City parklet permit, I can legally operate my parklet.” WRONG! You must also comply with requirements of the County Health Department and Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). 
  2. “If I have an ABC permit for my parklet, I can legally operate my parklet.” WRONG! You can apply for an ABC permit that allows you to extend your alcoholic beverage sales to the parklet area. However, the ABC issues the permit by relying on your statement that you have the legal authority to be on the street or the sidewalk. Before applying for the ABC permit, ensure you have the legal authority to use the parking space for dining – meaning you need a City permit and potentially permission from the property owner. 
  3. “The ABC will notify law enforcement of my permit.” WRONG! The ABC permitholder is responsible for notifying local law enforcement of their permit. Once a restaurant gets their ABC application approved, they should immediately make a copy and send it to their local police or sheriff’s office. Failure to do this may be viewed as non-conformance with the permit.
  4. “I don’t need to check in with my Business Improvement District before opening a parklet.” WRONG! Each BID has their own rules, and some will require you to list the BID as an additional insured party for the parklet. Always check to make sure you are in compliance.

Business owners who set up a sidewalk café or a parklet can benefit greatly, but they should be aware of the various rules in order to avoid running afoul of the law and to avoid potentially costly fees and penalties. The last thing we want is for more businesses to be shut down and that’s why complying with all aspects of the law is so important.


Error message

Support community news in the public interest! As nonprofit news, we rely on donations from the public to fund our reporting -- not special interests. Please donate to sustain East County Magazine's local reporting and/or wildfire alerts at to help us keep people safe and informed across our region.