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Six Months In: A Timeline of San Francisco’s Bar and Restaurant Reopening Rollercoaster

A lot has happened since the city’s shelter-in-place order began, but one thing remains constant: bars without food and the vast majority of restaurant dining rooms remain dark

It’s been six months since restaurants across the Bay Area closed down their dining rooms, a legal mandate from a coalition of health officers as they worked to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot has happened since then, but one thing remains constant: bars without food and the vast majority of restaurant dining rooms remain dark, and the industry has little idea of when they might reopen. Here’s a breakdown of the Bay Area’s bar and restaurant dining room shutdown and reopening timeline from the earliest days of the pandemic through the present day.


The lead up

February 5

AA Bakery and Cafe, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown known for its long lines, lost almost all its business after rumors spread via WhatsApp claimed that a worker at the spot had fallen ill with a new coronavirus known as “2019-nCoV,” that thus far had sickened 11 people across the U.S.

February 12

Chinese restaurants across San Francisco say that fears of the virus — which had at that point had 13 confirmed cases in the U.S. — has slashed business by as much as 50 percent.

February 25

San Francisco Mayor London Breed declares a state of emergency over COVID-19, an announcement that must be made to release local, state, and federal funds to prepare for a potential emergency. Though no cases had been confirmed in the city, diners, especially those from out of town, respond by canceling their reservations at the city’s high-end restaurants, telling restaurateurs that they no longer feel safe coming to San Francisco.


The shutdown

March 15

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announces that all of the state’s bars, nightclubs, breweries, and wineries that don’t also operate as restaurants should close down all operations. He also encourages restaurants to expand takeout and delivery offerings to allow diners to remain at home.

March 16

A coalition of six Bay Area counties (San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda) announces a blanket shelter-in-place order for the region as of 11:59 p.m., and tells residents that they are legally required remain home for all but tasks deemed “essential” until the order ends on April 7. Restaurants and coffee shops are only allowed to offer takeout and delivery service. The announcement prompts a mad rush at grocery stores across the region, crowding aisles with customers and leaving shelves bare.

March 19

California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control announces that restaurants and bars that serve full meals may sell cocktails to go, for takeout and delivery.

March 20

Newsom orders all California residents to stay at home, while restaurant owners in the Bay Area, still reeling from the abrupt shutdown news, lay off thousands of workers, pivot to takeout, or go completely dark. Restaurateurs and bar owners call on San Francisco for financial support, but little is provided.

March 31

With the April 7 end of the shelter-in-place order swiftly approaching, the coalition of Bay Area counties announces that the order will be extended until May 3. Restaurants that remain open for takeout must prepare and post a “Social Distancing Protocol” laying out how they keep employees and patrons safe. Businesses must “inform all employees and customers that they should: avoid entering the facility if they have a cough or fever; maintain a minimum six-foot distance from one another; sneeze and cough into a cloth or tissue or, if not available, into one’s elbow; and not shake hands or engage in any unnecessary physical contact.”

April 17

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announces that all restaurant workers, as well as anyone who is picking up a takeout order from a restaurant, must wear a face covering. Restaurants and other businesses are legally required to turn anyone without a mask away, an order that some restaurant owners say is an overstep that asks too much of their employees.

April 29

The six-county shelter-in-place order is again extended, this time until May 31. Some outdoor businesses are allowed to reopen, but the situation for restaurants and bars remains unchanged. Citing the challenges for social distancing from servers and how masks must be removed to eat or drink, officials say that anything beyond takeout is too risky to reopen.


The reopening

May 12

The Bay Area’s blanket health orders fall by the wayside, as Newsom announces that California’s reopening roll-out will happen county by county, based on coronavirus testing, infection, hospitalization, and death rates that are certified by local health officers and approved by the state. Restaurants in reopening counties can open dining rooms with modifications like removal of shared condiments and disposable menus. Bars, breweries, and other venues that do not serve sit-down meals must remain closed.

May 26

San Francisco announces a program called Shared Spaces, in which restaurants may apply for a free permit to expand outdoor seating, including use of parking spaces, lots, and sidewalks. The program will officially launch when a date for outdoor dining is set.

May 28

Breed announces that restaurants in San Francisco will be allowed to open for outdoor dining as of June 15, and indoor dining will resume on July 13. The city’s new reopening timeline says that bars that do not serve food might be able to reopen for business “mid-August.”

June 5

Mark Ghaly, the secretary of the California Health and Human Services agency, announces that the state will allow bars, wineries, brewpubs, nightclubs and other venues that do not serve food to resume business on Friday, June 12. Counties that want to allow their bars to reopen must apply for approval from the state, then can open for indoor and outdoor service, depending on what the individual counties prefer.

June 9

Surprise! Breed says that restaurants can open for outdoor dining on Friday, June 12 (instead of Monday, June 15), sending restaurateurs scrambling for outdoor tables and chairs, as well as materials to construct in-street seating.

June 22

Breed announces that foodless San Francisco bars will be allowed to reopen for outdoor drinking on Monday, July 29.


The rollback

June 16

One day after San Francisco’s Health Department officially announced that the city had state-level approval to reopen bars for outdoor drinking, Breed announced that that plan was on hold after a 75 percent increase in coronavirus cases across the state. No word yet on indoor dining, which still appeared on track to reopen in July 13.

July 7

Breed announces that the July 13 indoor dining reopening date has been canceled, and that there’s no timeline for when bars without food might reopen. Spots like Monterey and Napa counties, which had reopened indoor dining and drinking, move to close those activities down as cases continue to climb.

July 13

Newsom announces that indoor dining and all operations at bars without food must cease immediately, for every business in the state.


The now

August 31

Newsom announces a new, color-coded system to indicate what stage individual California counties have reached in the state-level reopening approval process. According to that system, San Francisco is “red,” which means that indoor dining is allowed at 25 percent. When contacted, San Francisco officials say that local rules prevail, and no changes to reopening are planned. Napa County, the only other red county in the region, reopens indoor dining immediately. Bars without food remain on hold, at both state and local levels.

September 1

At a press conference, San Francisco officials reiterate that stricter local health orders take precedence over looser state ones, and that no reopening is planned for indoor dining or bars.

September 17

Dining rooms have reopened in Santa Cruz, but San Francisco remains on hold, and officials refuse to answer any questions regarding a potential timeline to reopen. A coalition of powerful restaurant owners begin to discuss a potential lawsuit against the city, but say that if they were provided a simple timeline and explanation of the infection metrics needed to reopen, no lawsuit would be necessary.

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