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May 18 Is a Pivotal Day for Sit-Down Restaurant Service in San Francisco

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How things go after retail relaunches will inform when dining rooms might seat patrons

Margaritas and hand sanitizer at Flores
The reopening of dining rooms at spots like Flores hinge on infection rates across San Francisco after May 18
Patricia Chang

A casual listener to Wednesday’s briefing on San Francisco’s response to COVID-19 could be forgiven for assuming that the city hasn’t even started to think about reopening restaurant dining rooms. After all, the majority of the discussion was focused on the reopening of retail — Mayor London Breed and Department of Public Health director Dr. Grant Colfax announced yesterday that any San Francisco shop with a direct entrance to the street could open for curbside pickup on Monday, May 18. But according to Colfax, that May 18 date is also a crucial one for restaurants, as how the city responds to that retail opening will inform what happens next for sit-down dining.

On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the rules and regulations that restaurants across the state must follow when their dining rooms reopen. Absent from that announcement, however, was a specific reopening date: Instead, he said sit-down dining would resume on a county-by-county basis, determined by regional variance criteria including infection rates (no more than one case per 10,000 residents in the last 14 days), deaths (none in the past two weeks), and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for essential workers.

The Bay Area isn’t close to those infection numbers yet, Colfax said Wednesday. As of that afternoon, the city had 1,994 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths, and by Thursday morning, the number of infections had increased to 1,999, the city’s COVID-19 data tracker reports. When asked Wednesday if restaurant dining rooms might reopen before the May 31 end to the region’s current shelter-in-place order, Colfax said “this will be a gradual process to a new normal,” based on indicators like disease transmission rates, hospitalizations, and fatalities. Eventually, he said, “there will be a gradual restoration assuming those indicators give us the confidence to continue to move forward.”

That seems maddeningly vague, especially for restaurant owners already exhausted by a pivot to takeout, struggling to internalize the 12-plus pages of guidelines handed down by the state Tuesday, and watching their cash reserves dwindle. But in Colfax’s remarks there was, perhaps, one solid detail to hang on to: “Monday, the 18th, is a big step in that direction,” Colfax says, even though restaurants won’t be part of that phase of reopening in the city.

It makes sense that officials are looking at the 18th, and the days that follow, as an indicator for when higher-risk businesses (that’s the state level term, not an editorial decision) like restaurants might allow people inside. If infection rates increase when things are loosened, then we’d be moving too fast, officials say.

As Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody put it Tuesday, “We don’t suddenly have herd immunity, we don’t suddenly have a vaccine, we have exactly the same conditions that we had in March.” That means it’s likely that when restrictions ease up, those cities might “see a brisk return of cases, hospitalizations, and a brisk return of deaths.”

When asked what might happen if San Francisco sees a significant uptick in cases after May 18’s easing of restrictions, Colfax refused to confirm (or deny) if those restrictions might be rolled back. “We would look at the issues that are cause for confirm and make a decision,” he says.” We are gradually phasing in, we are watching those indicators...we all hope that with the public health measures we will continue to flatten that curve.” However, “if those numbers go in the opposite direction, we will investigate and make decisions on where and when we need to scale back.”

In other words, if infection rates remain the same or go down, a reopening of restaurant dining rooms might be within reach...but if numbers go up after the 18th, officials are likely to assume that the rules were relaxed too soon, and the reopening of higher risk business will remain on hold.