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San Francisco Restaurants Are Open for Outdoor Dining. Here’s What You Need to Know

There are already lists of spots that have reopened, but many say they’ll stick to takeout for now

Phase Two of Reopening in Mass.
San Francisco opens for outdoor dining on June 12, but many restaurants will stick with takeout for now
Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

San Francisco’s restaurant industry was taken by surprise when, on Tuesday, Mayor London Breed announced that outdoor dining for the county could begin on Friday June 12. The date that had previously been announced was June 15, and the county Department of Public Health (DPH) had yet to release any formal guidance on how to safely reopen. That guidance finally arrived late Thursday (you can read it in full below) and with that, a picture of how outdoor dining might look at it rolls out across the city.

The first thing to remember is that just because outdoor dining is allowed, does not mean that it’s completely without risks. Speaking with the SF Chronicle, UCSF School of Medicine infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong says that its harder to transmit the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outdoors than in, so “If you want to meet people, meet them outside.” That said, multi-household gatherings without social distancing and other precautions like face masks, even those enjoyed outside, have been linked to outbreaks of the virus.

That’s one of the reasons that Dr. George Rutherford, head of the division of infectious disease and epidemiology at UCSF, tells the Chron in a ranking of activity hazard levels, “going out for dinner and a drink” is one of the riskiest things one can do. “Standing in line at a popular restaurant with a group of other people for a few moments rates as a moderate risk. Sitting down for a long meal ... could be far more dangerous,” they say. “If you want to go to a restaurant, I’d either go very early or late, and miss the crowd,” Rutherford advises.

Many restaurants won’t open for outdoor dining immediately. There are a couple reasons for this. First, there’s the permit process: Per the SF Business Times, about 365 restaurants in the city had permits to offer outdoor dining (on a patio or public sidewalk) prior to the pandemic, and all of them can reopen those outdoor areas as of Friday night. But places that want to launch outdoor dining now must go through the Shared Spaces permitting process.

That’s the free, expedited application to move tables or retail displays onto sidewalks, parking spots, and other public spaces that also kicked off on Tuesday — and according to the application page, restaurants don’t have to wait for the city’s OK to move onto the sidewalk, they can head outside two business days after applying. So, if they hopped on it as soon as it dropped, they should be good to go by Friday, June 12. Applications to take over parking spaces won’t be approved as swiftly, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see tables in the road the first few days that outdoor dining is in action.

However, restaurateurs who’ve talked to Eater SF since Shared Spaces launched say that some of the insurance requirements of the program mean that they’ll have to wait longer, while another said that they expected to have time this weekend to figure out details and buy tables and chairs “but if you think I could get that done between Tuesday and Friday you’re crazy.”

Still others say they won’t reopen outside at all. One local restaurateur, who owns and operates a restaurant with a high-end tasting menu, tells Eater SF that they “can’t imagine doing a tasting menu outside like that, and if we were to do a less expensive option it doesn’t really make sense.”

Mid-Market’s Hazel Southern Bar & Kitchen is far more casual, but owner Jamie Boatner tells the Chron that the wind that whistles down San Francisco streets makes outdoor dining in his area impossible. “Food would get blown down Market Street,” he says. Then there’s the cold and fog, both of which are certainly less in these days of climate crisis — but still, as Shared Spaces applicants won’t (at present) be allowed to add the heaters that preexisting outdoor spots have, they’ll be at a disadvantage when the sun starts to set.

There are already running lists you can check out of places that have reopened for sit-down meals — but don’t expect any list to cover every spot. As Eater SF was reminded when we attempted to track spots that remained open for takeout when the pandemic began, San Francisco restaurants are an amazingly scrappy bunch, and of the 4000 or so restaurants in town, literally thousands of those kept to-go service going. This is a great news for the restaurant industry and for diners, but makes creating a comprehensive — or easy to navigate — list on a webpage next to impossible.

San Franciscans should expect a similar situation regarding places that open for outdoor dining, especially given the supposed ease of scoring a Shared Spaces permit. There a few excellent running lists out there so far, but as time goes on they, too, might become unmanageable. If you’re in the mood for a sit-down meal, we suggest that you check your favorite spot’s social media (or call them on the — kids, ask your parents — telephone) to see if they’re seating patrons.

A lot of places have gone reservation only. This includes spots that didn’t offer reservations before, and might not have even needed to prior to the pandemic. But now, many places are working to avoid social media shaming brought on by crowds of patrons waiting for seats, a prospect more likely if they only have a few tables on offer.

Many places also insist on reservations to enable contact tracing — that is, the process of identifying and tracking people who might be exposed to infection. Yes, it sounds scary, weird, and a little intrusive, but it’s also seen by many as the best way to restrict the spread of COVID-19. Before you head out for your outdoor dining date, it’s wise to either make a reservation, or contact your destination restaurant to confirm you don’t need one.

San Francisco’s outdoor diners will be allowed to share tables, even if they’re not in the same household. This is probably the biggest headline from the restaurant regulations that were released last night, and the aspect with which San Francisco most notably deviates from the rest of the Bay Area.

In most other counties that have reopened for outdoor dining, tables are restricted to six people, and cannot be shared by members of different households. In SF, parties can be larger than six people if all are members of the same household, but must stay at six if people are from more than one living situation. But while “it is strongly encouraged that only individuals in the same household sit together at a single table,” it’s not required.

San Francisco’s face covering laws still apply, though they’re slightly modified for diners. As a reminder, you’re legally required to wear a covering over your mouth and nose anytime you are within six feet of people who are not in your household. Obviously, that doesn’t work if you’re going to eat or drink, so for outdoor dining, you’re required to remain masked until you are are seated, and you must re-cover your face any time you leave the table.

In fact, restaurants cannot legally serve or seat anyone who does not have a face covering. That means that if you’re ordering or picking up food (or coffee, or cocktails) for takeout and you’re unmasked, restaurants are, by law, not supposed to serve you, and are required to ask you to mask up, or leave.

The other rules are fairly standard: restaurants must maintain a social distancing protocol, as outlined in the city’s most recent shelter-in-place order issued on June 1, and must follow these rules for takeout and delivery service that were issued in May. Venues must also keep diners outdoors except “for limited purposes such as to access a restroom, to access an outdoor space that is only accessible by traveling through the restaurant, or to order at an indoor counter.”

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