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San Francisco Pauses Restaurant Reopening After COVID-19 Cases Increase

Dining rooms were expected to open at 50 percent capacity on November 3, but an increase in coronavirus cases has stopped that plan in its tracks.

With only 12 seats in its dining room, Mission District omakase spot Sasaki cannot reopen at 25 percent capacity.
Patricia Chang

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced Friday, October 30, that the city will temporarily pause most reopening efforts planned for early November, following an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the city.

Just 10 days ago, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health (DPH) announced that as of November 3, restaurants would be allowed to expand indoor dining from 25 percent capacity, with a cap of 100 patrons, to 50 percent capacity/200 patrons, a plan that as of October 30 is on hold for an indeterminate period of time.

The increase in indoor dining was seen as a lifeline by many restaurateurs, many of whom have said that operating at 25 percent capacity isn’t financially sustainable. Speaking with Eater SF on October 30, for example, China Live founder George Chen says that the reduced capacity means “we’re burning through money” without breaking even. “It’s not something that any restaurant can continue long term,” he says.

But for the short term, at least, the one-quarter capacity rule stands, with takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining as backup revenue streams for restaurants that offer those options. According to Breed and DPH Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax, there is no timeline for when reopening might resume, noting in a statement that the pause is due to “an increase in COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations in San Francisco, coupled with the current increase in cases in California and across the United States.”

“It is better for San Francisco to take the time to pause now and assess the data than to keep reopening and risk needing to roll-back reopening at a future date,” the Mayor’s office said in a statement. In addition to the expansion of indoor dining, the reopening of indoor pools, bowling alleys, and locker rooms at gyms and fitness centers has also been paused, as has capacity increases at places of worship and museums.

“With this pause,” Breed says, “our public health experts can evaluate our cases and hospitalizations so that we can work to stay ahead of this virus and keep our community safe.”

For now, at least, businesses and activities that are currently allowed “may continue operating at this time,” the city says, and schools will continue to resume on-campus activities as planned.

One big concern, Breed says, is the higher potential for spread in the next few days. “Wear your face covering when you go out, keep your distance, and avoid gatherings,” Breed says. That’s advice that’s been applicable throughout the pandemic, but it’s an even higher priority in the coming week. “This is going to be especially important with Halloween this weekend and the election on Tuesday,” Breed says, These aren’t normal times and we can’t act like they are.”

In a statement, Laurie Thomas, executive director of lobbying group the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), echoed Breed’s encouragement that people do what they can to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “It is crucial that our community adhere to the San Francisco Department of Public Health guidance in order to reduce transmission; including mask wearing while dining when any staff members approach, social distancing, contact tracing, and implementing increased ventilation processes,” Thomas says.

Though this news is frustrating for many, it’s also likely that San Francisco’s conservative approach to reopening is paying off, in the larger sense. As of October 30, San Francisco still has the lowest COVID-19 death rate of any large city in the U.S., as well as the second-lowest test positivity rate of any large city. Even Thomas, whose livelihood depends on indoor dining (she’s the owner of Cow Hollow restaurants Rose’s Cafe and Terzo), sees the value in holding off on reopening.

“Although we are disappointed to hear that San Francisco will not be moving forward to allow indoor dining at 50 percent capacity at this time,” Thomas says, “we understand the need to pause our reopening plan in order to keep cases and hospitalizations under control ... Our biggest concerns remain with the health of our workers, patrons and residents of San Francisco.”