A health official in Santa Cruz says that a regional shelter-in-place order enacted on March 17 could be eased as of May 4, a move that could have positive implications for a bar and restaurant industry that’s been struggling to stay afloat during the shutdown.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel reports that County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said Tuesday that her agency has been “working on a new, less restrictive shelter-in-place order for May 4 in coordination with 13 counterparts in the wider Bay Area and the city of Berkeley.” According to Newel, “After May 4, we may start [allowing] gatherings of under 10 people and see how that goes,” with gatherings of up to 50 people allowed within the next two months.
This gradual easing of restrictions seems congruent with the joint plan between the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington announced this week. As reported by Eater LA, the tri-state plan doesn’t offer a timeline like the Bay Area’s reportedly will. “I know you want the timeline, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday, warning, “Let’s not make the mistake of pulling the plug too early.”
Newsom painted a specific picture of how things will look at California restaurants Tuesday, saying that when “we talk about what the new normal will look like, as I said normal, it will not be.” Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, Newsom says, diners should expect to have “dinner with a waiter wearing gloves [and] maybe a face mask. Dinner where the menu would be disposable. A table where half of the tables in the restaurants no longer appear, where your temperature is checked before you walk into the establishment. These are likely scenarios as we enter the next phase.”
News of only slightly altered restrictions is likely a disappointment to those who imagined that when the current shelter-in-place order ends on May 3, brew pubs, wineries, bars, and restaurants would throw open their doors with a gleeful abandon not seen since the halcyon days of February. Seemingly anticipating that expectation, Newsom said, “There’s no light switch here. I would argue it’s more like a dimmer...This is an imperfect science. There is no playbook that someone else has put together.”
But with possible relaxations in current rules like allowing gatherings of fewer than 10 people, that dimmer switch might be shedding slightly more light on Bay Area restaurants as of May 4. Even then, says Anjan Mitra, the owner of Japantown-area Indian restaurant Dosa, says that businesses like his will continue to struggle. “Decreasing the density of a restaurant really will sort of change the economics,” Mitra tells KPIX regarding mandated decreases in dining room capacity. “The economics are difficult to begin with. Now, if you decrease the density, which you will probably have to do, it’ll be even less profitable.”
Mat Schuster, the chef and owner of Market Street tapas spot Canela, tells KTVU that social distancing rules that slash dining room capacity mean that he might have to start telling lingering diners to move on, something he’s never done in the past. He says his average dine-in party sticks around for a leisurely hour-and-a-half, but he might have to restrict that to 50 minutes so his restaurant can serve more patrons.
Newsom’s mention of temperature taking is also a concern for some restaurateurs, who note that they’re not medical professionals — nor should they pretend to be. Azalina Eusope, the owner of Noe Valley Malaysian restaurant Mahila, tells the SF Chronicle that she can handle cutting her dining room capacity from 60 to 30 seats, but “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how to diagnose someone. That’s giving a lot of responsibility for businesses like us to deal with.”
Fine dining establishments say that they have even more to worry about should Newsom’s vision for restaurants come to pass. David Barzelay is the chef and owner of Michelin-starred Lazy Bear, a unique San Francisco restaurant known for providing an intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder dining experience. In fact, that was one of its charms, at least prior to the pandemic. “I don’t see how anybody wants to go have an ‘experience’ kind of meal that’s marred by those sorts of impersonal aspects,” Barzelay tells the Chron. Sarah Rich, co-owner of Michelin-starred Rich Table, agrees. Even after the shelter in place is lifted, patrons “won’t want to stand shoulder to shoulder at the bar … or sit 3 inches from the person next to them,” she tells the Chron. “We’re going to have to rethink the entire format of the dining experience.”
It’s important to remember, however, that all this is still up in the air, and that none of Newsom’s mentions of masks, gloves, and dining rooms are the stuff of official order quite yet. Right now, the state still needs to ensure that it has the capacity to adequately care for any sickened residents before any changes to the current restrictions are made.
At the local level, Gail Newel, Santa Cruz’s top doctor agrees, saying that “we’ll see how the next two weeks go” before making a final determination if things are to change on May 4. Assuming things go well, “we would try various measures, and then perhaps also need to retract them as well,” Newel tells the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We’re hoping that the public can get used to the idea of pivoting and needing to change direction at times to control the virus,” Newel says — advice that seems wise to apply to the gradual re-opening of local restaurants, as well.