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SF Officials Reverse Position on Capacity Limits for Indoor Dining

A day after city officials angered restaurateurs by saying that far fewer diners would be allowed indoors than expected, San Francisco’s health department has apparently changed its mind.

San Francisco restaurants will soon reopen at reduced capacity — but for now, that capacity count includes employees

Update: Saturday, September 26, 7:14 p.m.: On Friday, officials with San Francisco’s Department of Public Health (DPH) shocked restaurant owners by announcing that when indoor dining resumes in the city at 25 percent capacity, that 25 percent would include restaurant workers — a decision that would leave many of the city’s smallest and most at-risk restaurants out of that level of reopening, or force them to dramatically cut staff to allow more patrons indoors. But a day later, city officials are saying that they’ve changed their minds, and that workers wont’s be included in that count, after all.

So far, the “preliminary guidance” posted by the DPH still includes the controversial language on capacity limits, but that’s about to change, says Laurel Arvanitidis. She’s the Director of Business Development at the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), one of the many agencies that’s been involved in talks around restaurant reopening.

In a late-Saturday email sent to restaurant reopening stakeholders and obtained by Eater SF, she says that “We now expect that capacity will be capped at 25% of your posted occupancy for guests (or 100 guests, whichever is fewer) not counting personnel (and assuming proper distancing of seating can be maintained).”

“Spaces not open to guests must continue to allow for proper distancing of staff, but they will no longer be a part of the 25% count,” Arvanitidis writes. “We believe this clarified language will make calculations for establishments clear and straightforward while also keeping the capacity at the level currently allowed by public health standards.”

It’s unclear when the DPH will release its revised language. According to sources close to the reopening negotiations, city health officer Dr. Tomás Aragón — who makes the ultimate call on what reopens when, as well as the rules on how to do so — was involved in discussions with staffers with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), OEWD, and other city hall power players until late Friday, discussions that led to this sudden policy reversal.

Eater SF’s earlier report on the DPH’s preliminary guidance is below:

If all goes well, San Francisco’s restaurants expect to reopen for indoor dining the week of September 28. To prepare for that reopening, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health (DPH) has drafted guidance for restaurants that want to let customers in — but already, there’s a cloud on the horizon, as it appears that far fewer diners will be allowed than restaurant owners expected.

It seemed like the state’s color-coded reopening guide was clear. As Eater LA reported last month, when counties reach the “red” level of coronavirus risk, dining rooms are allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity based on its certificate of occupancy (COO), or 100 total. San Francisco opted to put off indoor dining until it reached the “orange” stage (which at the state level means 50 percent COO, or 200 total), allowing its restaurant reopening to lag one step behind state guidance for the duration of the recovery period.

Restaurant owners across the state assumed that those percentage levels applied specifically to the dining room capacity: So, if your restaurant has seats for 20 people, only five would be allowed to sit down indoors. But according to the preliminary guidance from the city, which is currently available on the DPH site, that 25 percent figure applies to the full number of people working at the restaurant, personnel included.

It’s an issue that could stymie indoor dining for most of the city’s smaller restaurants, many of which were hoping to rehire employees to serve folks who want to sit down inside. If faced with the choice of bringing back staff or opening a slot for a diner, many restaurants might opt to run short-staffed to increase the number of patrons it can serve. Still, others, like small restaurants in some of the city’s most densely-packed areas (the Tenderloin, for example), might not be able to open dining rooms at all.

Other top-line aspects of the draft guidance include rules that:

  • Tables must be limited to no more than six patrons, unless all are members of the same Household. People in the same party seated at the same table do not have to be six feet apart. It is strongly encouraged that only individuals in the same household sit together at a single table.
  • All patrons must be seated at a table to eat or drink. Standing between tables or gathering in other areas of the Dining Establishment is not permitted. Patrons are not allowed to stand, gather, dance, or circulate between tables.
  • Patrons may not be served food or beverages while waiting to be seated.

A full copy of the draft guidance is viewable below.

Via email, a spokesperson with the DPH says that the draft “is designed to give restaurants an idea of what the final guidelines will be, whenever indoor dining is allowed to resume with safety plans in place,” but that “this is simply a planning tool.” Sources close to city hall reopening conversations, who requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak on the record, say that it’s possible that the guidance will again be revised before official reopening.

In a written statement, Laurie Thomas, executive director of San Francisco restaurant lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said that her organization has “been working closely the past few days with the OEWD, [San Francisco health officer] Dr. Aragon and other restaurateurs” to give feedback on the guidance, and that she understands that the document posted “this morning is preliminary and will be continued to be refined.”

“We do have some concerns regarding a few sections,” Thomas says, “and are working to get clarity and a more workable solution on these items.”


Who should be counted in the calculations for indoor dining capacity?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Everyone in the building. After all, CODIV-19 can come from anyone, not just seated diners!
    (100 votes)
  • 47%
    Just seated diners. They’re the ones that are sitting there all unmasked!
    (230 votes)
  • 32%
    This conversation is ludicrous. Indoor dining should not reopen yet, AT ALL.
    (158 votes)
488 votes total Vote Now

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