The multitude of wildfires currently burning in the Bay Area have destroyed people’s homes, prompted mass evacuations, and left the spots untouched by flames dangerous to breathe, officials say. Despite this, Bay Area health agencies are not making any official moves to shut down outdoor dining, but they are strongly urging people to stay home, leaving restaurants without guidance on how to keep patrons safe in these times of unprecedented challenges.
As everyone of course knows, indoor dining is not allowed anywhere in the Bay Area, as the spread of COVID-19 is faster inside, where air is less likely to circulate. That’s why restaurants have moved operations outdoors, taking over sidewalks, parking spaces, and patios with tables and chairs. If everyone remains socially distant and follows face-covering protocols, the thinking goes, the threat of viral transmission drops, as the freely flowing air will make it harder for the infection to be passed from one person to another.
That freely flowing air becomes a problem, however, when your state is on fire.
You remember the fall of 2018, right? That’s when “N95 mask” probably entered your vocabulary — in fact, in the early days of the pandemic, maybe you even used masks you’d stockpiled then, when the devastating wildfires across Northern California made the Bay Area’s air more polluted than the most ecologically challenged cities in the world. The region was coated with ash as restaurants, shops, and other venues voluntarily shut down and people stayed home to avoid the toxic air.
As of Thursday morning, fires in the North Bay, the South Bay, and the Peninsula have burned over 300,000 acres. People are literally running for their lives, packing evacuation centers as their homes burn and businesses (for example, many of the wineries in the San Lorenzo Valley) are threatened. The places untouched by fire suffer as well, as the headlines again read “Wildfire smoke chokes Bay Area, creating worst air quality in the world” and “Bay Area air quality worst in the world as wildfires rage in all but one county.”
When we faced these conditions in 2018, it seemed manageable to stay home for a few days, especially given the serious threat the particulate in the air presents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it plainly:
The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.
And unlike COVID-19, which one may or may not encounter any time one leaves the house, the smoke is unavoidable. The ash covers the chairs and tables outside your favorite restaurant, raining down on the barriers carefully built to protect diners from passing cars, and smudging the plexiglass shields intended to keep social bubbles from intermingling.
At a press conference Wednesday, Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of health, said that the pollution is so severe that “everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects and members of more sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.” Both Colfax and Mayor London Breed said residents should close their windows, stay home, and “minimize exposure” to outside air.
But while officials urge residents to avoid the outdoors, they’re not providing any guidance to restaurants — many of which have already devoted thousands of dollars and hours of staff training to ensure that their workers and patrons will be safe, only to be confronted by this additional threat.
When asked by Eater SF if SF officials planned to provide area restaurants with additional guidance around outdoor dining during these days of bad air quality, a spokesperson with San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) said only that “Per HO Directive No 2020-16b, outdoor dining restaurants must comply with each requirement listed in Exhibit A and prepare a Health and Safety Plan substantially in the format of Exhibit B,” referring in both cases to health orders related to coronavirus, not air pollution.
The spokesperson also said that “during poor air quality conditions and COVID-19, the best and healthiest thing for everyone to do now to avoid exposure to outdoor air and the virus by staying indoors as much as possible,” and that “if you must leave your home and go out for essential activity, remember to bring your face coverings and socially distance from people outside of your household to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19,” a remark that — again — fails to address this additional threat, and its potential impact on restaurant workers and diners.
A spokesperson with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association says that thus far, they’re not aware of any San Francisco restaurants that are voluntarily closing their outdoor dining operations in response to the air quality, even as restaurateurs in regions closer to the fire zones tell the SF Chronicle that they’ve seen a significant decrease in business in recent days. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, area residents should expect the current conditions — which it characterizes as “unhealthy for all” — through Sunday, at least.