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Frustrated By Delays, San Francisco Bar Owners Push to Reopen in July

San Francisco’s current timeline leaves bars shuttered for two more months

Bars without food aren’t expected to reopen in San Francisco until some time in August
Eve Batey

Shuttered since March 15, when Governor Gavin Newsom ordered their shutdown in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), bars in San Francisco have struggled to make ends meet, launching takeout programs and delivering cocktails in an effort to keep money coming in. Others chose to completely shut their doors to ride out the pandemic. Many of those bar owners say that they’ve had it, and that the reopening of the city’s restaurants for indoor dining should bring back indoor drinking, as well. They’re pushing to move San Francisco’s slightly murky bar reopening date of “mid-August” to July 13, saying there’s no reason eating food indoors is somehow safer than drinking a cocktail inside a bar’s four walls.

Bars that serve food have been allowed to remain open for delivery and takeout, and to that end, the California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), which oversees liquor licenses, announced in May that booze-only spots could also do carryout businesses if they partnered with a separate food vendor. Seeing the move toward outdoor dining (which, according to experts, appears less likely to spread the virus than indoor interactions), the ABC also said, in a separate order, that bars could apply for a Temporary Catering Authorization (TCA), which would allow them to seat patrons on closed-down streets, on sidewalks, and in adjacent parking lots and plazas.

But not every bar can come to terms with a food vendor, says Ben Bleiman, the owner of Tonic Nightlife Group (Teeth, Soda Popinski, Tonic, and the now-shuttered Bullitt). Bleiman’s a longtime advocate for the city’s nightlife business, calling out the city’s permitting process and planning code (which he says rivals “the Soviet Union in complexity and irrationality,” he wrote for KQED last year) and pushing San Francisco officials to release unused funds to support workers left jobless in the pandemic.

He’s also the head of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance (a lobbying group for the booze biz) and is the president of the city’s Entertainment Commission, a City Hall commission that oversees San Francisco’s nightlife industry. He’s hoping to use his influence to reopen bars next month, telling KRON 4 that they’ve been left behind in the city’s plan to reopen.

Bleiman and Hecklina, the owner of SoMa drag bar Oasis, have taken to to push for an earlier reopening, writing that “we are respectfully asking the city to reconsider and allow bars to reopen July 13th,” the same day that indoor dining is expected to begin in San Francisco.

“Bars can provide a safe, responsible, SUPERVISED environment for patrons with social distancing, partitioning, capacity limitations, and group sizes strictly enforced,” they write, and “dedicated staff can disinfect and sanitize before and after patrons, which is certainly not happening in people’s apartments or on packed sidewalks/picnic tables in the park where people are currently gathering.” The pair are encouraging San Franciscans to email Mayor London Breed and their district supervisor to advocate for reopening, as well as sign the petition, which at publication time had 6,043 signatures.

It’s not an impossible dream, as Mark Ghaly, the secretary of the California Health and Human Services agency, announced last week that the state’s bars could usher patrons inside as soon as Friday, June 12. Just a few days later, Contra Costa County announced that its bars will reopen on July 1.

But the soonest San Francisco bars can reopen is August 13, Bleiman says. Eater SF wasn’t able to confirm that date, as a Department of Public Health spokesperson just noted that the current “Planned Reopening Timeline” has Phase 3 of the city’s reopening (that is, the phase that includes bars without food) is set for a mid-August date “to be determined” and “will be more than one sub-phase.” But regardless of the exact date, Bleiman says, waiting until August to reopen is “a death knell for a lot of bars.”

“We don’t have money,” Bleiman says of the city’s bar owners, and “we’re not driving Teslas ... We’re sending our kids to public school,” Bleiman says, suggesting that publicans don’t have a vast store of cash to get them through the next two months.

“It seems like every step of the way we’re being deprioritized,” Bleiman says of bars.. “We’re being pushed to the back and being left behind and it’s frustrating constantly to have to fight to be treated the same way restaurants are.”