Since the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order was extended to May 31, local restaurants and diners have heard the same refrain: Takeout and delivery are fine, but anything beyond that, even for places with outdoor seating, is strictly forbidden. But this week, some officials seemed to suggest that sit-down dining — of some sort — might resume before the end of May.
It was just last week that San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) director of disease prevention and control Dr. Susan Phillip said that even if restaurants can successfully manage social distancing for diners, “it’s very difficult to maintain spacing for the server,” and that as diners must remove their (legally required, in San Francisco) face coverings to eat, dining increases the risk of exposure to the new coronavirus (COVID-19).
That’s why, Phillip said, Bay Area health officials had agreed that restaurants should remain takeout and delivery only for the duration of the shelter-in-place order. It seemed for a moment during Newsom’s Monday briefing on the plan to reopen California that he might contradict that requirement — as Eater LA reports, “restaurants and retail have been grouped together as part of Newsom’s phasing-in plan for the past several weeks,” but when he announced that if certain guidelines (to be announced Thursday) “are met and modifications are made, businesses can begin to reopen as early as the end of the week,” “seated dining” for restaurants was specifically excluded.
The exception, Newsom said, might be restaurants in areas in California that have had low rates of coronavirus infections, but those reopening plans would have to be “‘locally certified’ by county public health officials and supervisors,” the Sacramento Bee reports.
Obviously, the Bay Area isn’t an area that’s been able to avoid COVID-19, so that accelerated reopening timeline is unlikely to apply in SF. When asked about a potential reopening of Bay Area seated dining, Breed seemed wistful. When asked if local restaurants could reopen for diners on Friday, Breed said “I would love nothing more than to open restaurants, and to go to restaurants, and to go to a restaurant, myself, right now. More than anything.”
Getting more serious, she said, “whatever is decided as it relates to reopening efforts, we have to do so, responsibly.” Breed also said that officials are ‘talking about new guidelines for restaurants now,” but did not provide any specifics. (Eater SF has contacted San Francisco’s DPH for more details on when those guidelines might be available, but has not received a response as of publication time.)
“But can we say, definitively, that [restaurants] are going to be open this Friday? No, we can’t,” Breed said, ”because it is important that we rely on the facts, we rely on the data, we rely on the advice of our county health officers, so that as we push to do these things, we do so responsibly.”
Breed also said that officials “want to give these businesses time to know exactly what’s expected, and also, to know what it is they need to prepare for as they begin to reopen.” “One of the conversations was centered around whether or not [restaurants] could have the capacity they once had, and what does that mean for their workforce.” In other words, how many people can fit safely into a dining room.
As has been stated all along, rules during the coronavirus crisis default to whatever agency is the strictest. If Bay Area officials agreed to reopen restaurant dining rooms today (they won’t), the state-level rules would supersede that decision. And if the state agreed to allow sit-down dining today, the Bay Area could still prohibit it on coronavirus-related grounds. “We are not preempting [regional] guidelines,” Newsom said Monday. “We will still allow them to move forward.”
All these answers are frustratingly vague, of course, but frustrating vagueness is a trademark move for this pandemic. As Breed said Friday, reopening restaurants “is a little bit more complicated” than reopening retail, and the goal is to do it and to do it responsibly...the last thing we want to see is the time that we’ve already spent on this lockdown — we don’t want to see the city go backwards in terms of our [infection] numbers and things get even worse.”