After restaurant owners across the Bay Area watched Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a stay-at-home order for the California counties hardest hit by the pandemic, they breathed the slightest sigh of relief. The Bay Area, Newsom said, “is doing a little better” than the rest of the state in terms of COVID-19 cases, so it was likely that outdoor dining and other activities could continue through mid-December. That sigh of relief was premature, however, as health officers from the central Bay Area announced today that the region would proactively enter into the state’s most restrictive shutdown since March, closing down outdoor dining and limiting other businesses in much of the area as of Sunday, December 6.
At a press conference on Friday, health officers from the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and the city of Berkeley (which has its own health department) announced that the shutdown will begin even before the state requires it. For Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and the city of Berkeley, the stay-at-home order will begin on the already-established curfew hour of 10 p.m. on Sunday. In Alameda County, it will take effect on Monday, December 7. In Marin County, the order will take effect on Tuesday, December 8. The new restrictions will remain in place across all these counties until January 4, 2021.
Speaking at the event, Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said that even as cases continue to climb, “we believe that December will be worse” and that “we don’t think we can wait to allow the state’s restrictions to go into effect. That’s why we’re making temporary changes to go into effect now.”
Under the plan that Newsom announced Thursday, California is divided into five regions: far Northern California, the greater Sacramento area, the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California, and the Bay Area (which under this plan includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma counties). When the intensive-care unit capacity in a region’s hospital network drops below 15 percent, the lockdown will kick in until “a region’s projected ICU capacity meets or exceeds 15 percent,” or for a minimum of three weeks.
As part of that order, full details of which can be found here, “all gatherings with members of other households are prohibited,” residents must “stay home or at their place of residence except as necessary to conduct activities associated with the operation, maintenance, or usage of critical infrastructure.” That said, “nothing in this order prevents any number of persons from the same household from leaving their residence ... as long as they do not engage in any interaction with (or otherwise gather with) any number of persons from any other household.” In other words, a walk in the park is okay, but a walk in the park with your friend from a couple blocks over is not.
As for grocery stores, bodegas, and other retail operations, they must all cut their capacity to 20 percent, and “the sale of food, beverages, and alcohol for in-store consumption is prohibited.” The same is true for on-site consumption of dishes or drinks at restaurants, which may continue to serve takeout and delivery meals and cocktails. Bars, wineries, and breweries must completely close.
In a statement, San Francisco dining lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association expressed frustration with Friday’s announcement, saying that “today’s move to ‘jump’ the state is very difficult for our industry. ... After listening to the Governor’s announcement yesterday, San Francisco restaurants thought that a further shutdown of outdoor dining would come around mid-December and were making staffing and operational plans around that.”
The shutdown surprise was also on the minds of restaurateurs like Mourad Lahlou, whose Outer Richmond Moroccan restaurant Aziza reopened after a years-long remodel only months before the pandemic began. His other spot, Financial District fine dining destination Mourad, shuttered to diners when the crisis emptied out the city’s downtown, pivoting to a pickup meal-kit model. But Aziza went all in on its outdoor dining buildout, taking over a nearby parking lane and sidewalk.
Now sit-down meals at Aziza must cease until at least the end of 2020. “I trust the science and health experts, and if they feel a shutdown is what’s going to mitigate further spread of the coronavirus, then so be it,” Lahlou says, as “no one wants to see another human being get sick or lose their life for the sake of making a buck. But without the financial assistance of the federal government ... the hole will be too deep to get out of, and cutting our losses will be the better option.”
For China Live founder George Chen, Friday’s announcement was the latest in a slow death by a thousand cuts. His massive, multi-venue Chinatown marketplace upped its delivery game as the pandemic raged on, built out an outdoor setup, and opened for indoor dining as soon as it was allowed. When indoor dining re-shuttered, Chen was forced to lay off staffers; he’s preparing for a “brutal holiday.” The latest restrictions come “at the worst time,” he says, as his businesses had just gotten “back to some normalcy.” But now “basically lockdown again is obviously demoralizing.”
Chen says that he worries that his workers “may not have enough money to get by the holidays and end of year, but he doesn’t know what else he can do. “We can’t keep them,” he says, “as cash is super tight” and information on federal stimulus programs is nonexistent. “We just want to do our safest best for our restaurant industry, but this needs to get a permanent solution soon as it’s wearing all of us out!”
The GGRA seems well aware that its members are — in Chen’s words — worn out, saying that “with only takeout and delivery as options, we expect immediate negative effects to our industry including restaurant hibernations and/or more permanent closures, which will lead to increased unemployment.” According to the GGRA, “the majority of restaurants simply cannot make it financially on takeout alone,” but “with the uncertainty around further federal support, San Francisco restaurants, their employees, and their families will suffer greatly by having no choice but to close for a period of time.”
In Lahlou’s words, “this is no fucking joke.” Without federal support like a bailout, the RESTAURANTS Act, or a stimulus bill that provides assistance to the food and beverage business, “the continued free fall and subsequent impart will be too powerful to sustain or survive,” he says. Texting Eater SF from his restaurant kitchen, Lahlou says that right now, he’s just focused on the next few days. “I’m just trying to find a way to stay open for takeout,” he says, so he can keep his workers employed “for the next couple of months, until the shutdown is eased.”