San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a new plan to reopen San Francisco restaurant dining rooms Friday morning, slightly more than six months after they were closed down by the city’s shelter-in-place order. Under the new program, when SF reaches the next level of the state’s color-coded system for reopening, indoor dining will resume at 25 percent capacity, with a maximum of 100 diners allowed indoors. The city will move into that phase “no sooner than the end of the month,” Breed’s office says via statement, which means that, if COVID-19 infections rates hit the necessary levels, San Francisco could be sitting down to eat inside by October 1.
When California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s new county-by-county way to map individual regions’ coronavirus rates, San Francisco was listed as “red,” which at the state level means that restaurants in SF could have reopened for reduced-capacity indoor dining on August 31. But city officials publicly balked each time they were asked about reopening during media events and press conferences, citing the increased risks associated with being unmasked indoors and in extended person-to-person contact as one eats and drinks.
But behind the scenes, Breed’s office, the city’s Department of Public Health, and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (the lobbying group for SF’s dining industry) have been in intense meetings for weeks, with discussions centering on the economic struggles the industry faces and how a wave of restaurant closures could end health insurance coverage for thousands of San Francisco workers. Speaking with Eater SF, Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the GGRA, says that “on September first, when the city wasn’t ready to announce an indoor dining reopening timeline, we leveraged” relationships with City Hall “to arrange additional high level meetings to discuss the critical and immediate need for clear reopening criteria.”
Those negotiations bore fruit this morning, as Breed’s office released a statement saying that when San Francisco reaches the “orange” stage of reopening, with a “moderate” risk level for infection (specifically, 1 – 3.9 daily new cases per 100,000 residents, and a 2-4.9 percent positive test rate), restaurants can reopen their dining rooms at the “red” rate.
This “one colored step behind” safety measure is one of many that’s been suggested by restaurant industry leaders since August 31, many of whom have expressed frustration at the lack of public communication since the state approved SF’s reopening. That frustration even led to threat of a lawsuit from some of the city’s most prominent restaurant owners.
Hanson Li, founder of high-powered restaurant investment company Salt Partners Group (Atelier Crenn, Humphry Slocombe, Horsefeather, and many others) and one of the restaurateurs mulling the hypothetical suit, told Eater SF on September 16 that if the city provided a roadmap to reopening, then there would be no need for the suit. According to Li, he did not expect indoor dining to return until December, and was hopeful that a lawsuit would pressure the city to reopen by mid-October.
But it doesn’t appear that worries about a lawsuit are what prompted this announcement. Thomas tells Eater SF that “the reason I think this was able to happen started months ago,” as the city started meeting with industry leaders when pandemic concerns prompted SF’s February state of emergency announcement. “That laid the groundwork,” Thomas says, and “from there, we were used to working together” and “established relationships that made [this reopening announcement] possible.”
But don’t relax yet: Breed’s office says that if “if local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations do not remain stable, San Francisco may not meet the criteria of the orange tier and will remain in the red tier.” So it all comes down to infection rates, which is something that restaurateurs cannot control. But, at least, now there’s a plan, and a specific milestone to watch for.