In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the state of California has launched two separate shutdowns in recent weeks: a curfew that restricts activities after 10 p.m. every day in counties where coronavirus cases continue to rise, and a new, stay-at-home order for larger regions that will kick in when the intensive care units available in an area’s hospital system drop below 15 percent. With those two sets of restrictions in play, there’s a lot of confusion about what’s allowed and what isn’t for businesses and residents in the state — especially for restaurants, which arguably face some of the tightest restrictions of the orders.
This guide that seeks to untangle those rules, and offer clarity on what services are available in regions under both of those orders. If you have additional questions, drop us a line and we’ll add them (with answers) to this FAQ.
Under the stay-at-home order, what are we expected to do?
In the most general sense, people in different households are no longer allowed to mix, in private or in public. That means outdoor dining is closed, and a panoply of other venues must shutter, including zoos and aquariums, wineries, bars, breweries, distilleries, and family entertainment centers.
So, wait, can I pick up a meal or shop for groceries?
Yes, you may — but be prepared for longer lines, as the order also reduces capacity inside stores from 50 to 20 percent. Farmers markets will also remain open, and restaurants may still serve meals for takeout and delivery.
Think about it this way: running errands and doing things to stay healthy is okay, but meeting up with people you don’t live with as you do those things isn’t. Or, in the words of Berkeley Public Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez, “until we get through this wave, you should not meet in person with anyone you do not live with, even in a small group, and even outdoors with precautions. If you have a social bubble, it is now popped.”
Why is outdoor dining shut down but you can still go to an indoor store?
It’s all about mask use. When you’re in a store (or exercising outside, or engaging in any of these other activities that are still allowed) everyone is expected to remain fully masked at all times. But sit-down dining, by its very nature, means that people are unmasked an in proximity with one another for extended periods of time, which health officials say increases risks.
Here’s what Contra Costa Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said during a press conference to announce the Bay Area’s stay-at-home order: “Any kind of activity that involves taking off your mask to eat or drink — even though outdoors is safer, even outdoors poses a risk for COVID spread. With the high risk of transmission in our communities, outdoor dining is more risky than it was two months ago.”
Whose idea was this stay-at-home order?
Like the COVID-19 curfew, the stay-at-home plan comes from California’s Department of Public Health, not your local leaders. That said, places like Los Angeles, where cases are rising most swiftly, closed outdoor dining and rolled back other reopenings weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state-level order on November 3.
Is it in effect now?
In some regions, but not all. Here’s how it works: the plan groups California into five regions: far Northern California, the greater Sacramento area, the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and Southern California. When the ICU capacity in a region drops below 15 percent, the stay-at-home order will kick in for at least three weeks. After that period, the order will be lifted only “when a region’s projected ICU capacity meets or exceeds 15%,” the state says on its website.
So, then, where is it in effect?
As of publication time, in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. According to numbers presented on Monday, December 7, SoCal’s bed availability is at 10.9 percent, and the San Joaquin Valley is down to 6.3 percent.
But there’s more. Though the Bay Area is still at 25.7 percent availability, on Friday, December 4, health officers in part — but not all — of the Bay Area region announced they’d enter into the stay-at-home early. The full region under the state plan is Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma counties. Alameda County and and the city of Berkeley officials say that they’ll enact the stay-at-home as of 10 p.m. on Monday, December 7. In Marin County, the order will take effect on Tuesday, December 8. Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and San Francisco entered into the stay-at-home at 10 p.m. on Sunday, December 6. For that group of Bay Area counties, the order will remain until January 4.
Wait, what? Why did those counties shut down early?
According to San Francisco Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, the current increase in cases means San Francisco will run out of ICU beds within three weeks, and on December 6, Contra Costa, San Francisco, and Santa Clara registered the most cases of coronavirus they’ve seen since the start of the pandemic. The speed of the uptick, county health officers said, means that to avoid being overwhelmed, those counties need to shut down even sooner.
So after January 4, 2021, is the Bay Area back to outdoor dining?
That depends. The state stay-at-home clock doesn’t start ticking until the Bay Area’s ICU beds fall below 15 percent, so when that happens, the three week stay-at home begins. It’s quite likely that these areas will be shut down beyond January 4 if a bed shortage continues.
What about the rest of the Bay Area?
San Mateo County remains open with outdoor dining and other non-stay-at-home activities as of publication time, even though one of its supervisors says he wishes his region had joined its neighbors in shutting down. Napa, Solano, Sonoma have also opted not to shut down, so folks looking for al fresco meal have options in wine country.
And it’s okay to travel there for that?
You got me there. The stay-at-home order bars nonessential travel, which arguably makes a trip across county lines a violation. And according to a statewide travel advisory that’s been in effect since November 13, “Californians are encouraged to stay home or in their region and avoid non-essential travel to other states or countries.” So it’s not like the state is saying that that is a great plan! (Nor are we.)
Can I can get takeout and have a picnic with my friends during the stay-at-home order?
Prior to the stay-at-home, Bay Area officials had said that it was acceptable to gather outdoors with people from as many as three households, but that’s over now. Bay Area health officials put it plainly, saying “You may no longer gather socially (even outdoors).”
Can I still have my extended family over for a backyard dinner?
No. You can’t have anyone come over, nor can you go over to someone else’s place. No backyard Christmas dinner, no New Year’s barbecue with your friends. None of that is allowed.
Well, who’s going to stop me?
It’s up to local officials to enforce the orders, so it’ll be handled region by region. Violations are classified as misdemeanors, and are punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, so that’s worth a long think before you break any rules. But one might hope that you will stop you. After all, the only way restaurants will be able to reopen is if COVID-19 cases drop, and the only way they’ll drop is if we all stop hanging out with each other. Let your conscience be your guide.