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California Gov. Gavin Newsom Lays Out Conditions Necessary For Restaurant Dining Rooms To Reopen

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Restaurant workers will be required to screen diners for COVID-19

At a media event on May 7, 2020, California State officials including Gavin Newsom unveiled the latest guidelines to allow restaurants and other businesses to reopen across the state.
The Office of the Governor of California

Despite expectations that recommendations related to the opening of restaurants would be released by the state today, at his daily briefing on California’s response to the COVID-19 crisis on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom provided little insight into how the state’s food industry might move forward, and instead said that guidelines for sit-down dining would be released on Tuesday, May 11.

The briefing was eagerly anticipated by restaurant workers all across California; since mid-April, the industry has struggled to figure out what vague assertions like diners might expect to see “a waiter wearing gloves [and] maybe a face mask” (April 14) and that regulations could be eased in “days, not weeks or months” (April 22).

In his opening words, Newsom mentioned his desire to return sit-down dining to California, but the longer he spoke, the clearer it became that substantial information for the dining industry would in in short supply.

At a media event on May 7, state officials confirmed that restaurant dining rooms would not be part of the “stage 2” reopening plans that kick in on Friday.

It’s unclear if the guidelines that were previously promised were delayed by a Thursday message to the governor from the California Restaurant Association, a statewide lobbying group for the industry. Eater LA reports that the group presented its own set of recommendations to the governor today, including a ban on buffets, rules that only members of the same household could be seated together, and mandatory hand-washing schedules for restaurant employees. As Newsom has repeatedly noted that reopening guidelines across industries would be informed by stakeholders within sectors, it’s possible that any announcements planned for today were tabled as officials digested the CRA’s recommendations.

The one thing we do know for sure is that all employees who deal with the public, including those who work at restaurants, will be required to screen for the disease. In a slide set presented by California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, he said that workers across all sectors will be trained to assess risks, including determining if customers, clients, and patrons might be infected. It’s unclear what form that screening would take: temperature checks, perhaps, or a checklist of questions to ask patrons.

Will restaurant workers be taking the temperatures of diners? Perhaps!

Another semantic matter to note: According to Newsom, the state is “moving away from” the terms essential and non-essential when it comes to businesses. From now on, expect sectors to be graded on risk, with the businesses enabled to open on Friday classified as “lower risk,” Newsom says. That makes restaurants non-lower-risk, perhaps.

At today’s announcement, Ghaly also outlined what milestones counties would have to hit to begin to allow restaurants and other currently-shuttered businesses to reopen ahead of the state-mandated timeline. Some of those rules include the ability to prove that no one in the region has died of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, and the the area has fewer than one case of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents. Those that flout the rules, Newsom said Thursday, would face enforcement “in a judicious way.”

Some of the milestones that counties that want to reopen ahead of the rest of the state must meet include no deaths of COVID-19 within the past two weeks

Without naming any names, Newsom did reserve some chiding words for California counties that have reopened for business already. The state is ready to “pull them back a bit,” Newsom said, as some “have gotten ahead of themselves.”

Newsom is likely referring to spots like Northern California’s Yuba and Sutter counties. Dr. Phuong Luu, the public health officer for both counties, allowed dine-in service as of Friday, May 4, a decision that Newsom has previously characterized as “a big mistake.” According to the LA Times, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) visited bars and restaurants in those counties, and reminded those restaurants that spots that violate the statewide order to keep dining rooms dark could lose their liquor licenses, as “the current status of these various directives is that no licensee in this state may permit on-sale consumption,” the ABC says.

But now, restaurants must wait until Tuesday to learn more, it appears. According to Newsom, it’s likely that counties that hit the previously mentioned milestones for infection rates that “work collaboratively” with the state might be able to return to dine-in service “in the next week.” Obviously, that’s out of reach for urban areas, where infections and deaths continue. And even when every area hits those state-set metrics, Newsom says, that still “does not mean a return to normal.”

“This is an iterative process, this is a dynamic process, this is not etched in stone,” Newsom said. So it’s likely that even on Tuesday, we’ll see a set of rules that will evolve as the crisis continues.

It’s important to note those rules, whenever they arrive, will not supersede stricter ones from county health departments. Under the Bay Area’s current guidelines, for instance, restaurants are restricted to delivery and takeout service until at least May 31. By contrast, Los Angeles has a shelter-in-place order that is set to be relaxed as of May 15. (LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has been very cautious when asked when dine-in service might resume, however.)

Speaking at San Francisco’s regular COVID-19 update Wednesday, Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax said that while “the governor’s guidance... will spell out the state’s expectations...It is important to remember that the rule of thumb is whichever order is more restrictive is the order that will take precedence going forward.”

And after those rules are handed out, the Bay Area’s rules for restaurants will still have to be be tailored to mesh with them, DPH spokesperson Jenna Lane tells Eater SF. “I’m told that guidelines for restaurant reopening are being developed at the state level,” Lane says, “and that San Francisco’s health officer expects to adapt those to local needs whenever they become available.”