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SF Mayor Says ‘We Have No Control’ Over Easing Restrictions on Outdoor Dining

Restaurant workers and doctors continue to question the city’s “indefinite” stay-at-home order

San Francisco’s outdoor dining areas sit empty as the stay-at-home order continues.
Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Between so-called pandemic fatigue, the lack of federal financial support, skepticism over the dangers of sit-down dining, and an “indefinitely” extended stay-at-home order, some San Francisco restaurant industry workers say they’ve had enough, and are calling on city officials to reopen outdoor dining and drinking as soon as it can. But in a press conference Tuesday, January 5, Mayor London Breed said their ire is misplaced, as the city cannot make its own decisions on what can and cannot reopen.

They made their case in front of San Francisco City Hall Monday: a crew of 40 or so masked and unmasked people, many of whom who said they worked at local restaurants, gathered in Civic Center with signs bearing messages like “False Evidence Appearing Real” and “No Data No Science No Work No Help.”

According to the SF Business Times, one of the event’s organizers was Giovanni Cincotta, “a 40-year-old self-described ‘bartender and server for life’” who, prior to the pandemic, worked at three venues across the city. “I’m the best bartender I know and I can’t do my job,” he told the Business Times. “I sit in my room and cry all day, and watch my son wonder why I’m crying.” Another organizer was Johnny Metheny, a longtime FiDi and Lombard Street bar owner who (per the SF Chronicle) filed a lawsuit against the city last November, demanding a refund for permits and other city-required fees. “San Francisco was the restaurant hub of the world and it’s going to lose that,” Metheny told the Business Times.

Both Cincotta and Metheny — as well as Zazie co-owner Megan Cornelius, who spoke with NBC Bay Area, said that their drive to reopen outdoor dining was a reflection of financial necessity, not a lack of concern over the pandemic. “We’re okay with being closed if you can just pay everybody to stay closed,” Cornelius said. “Our employees are just frustrated, not knowing when they are going to pay their bills or come back to work.”

Metheny also says that he’s concerned that the restrictive nature of the current, state-mandated stay-at-home order could actually backfire and cause the city’s case rate to increase. “Closing outdoor dining I really believe sends people indoors,” he told KCBS. “They’re going to be socializing at gatherings indoors, which is way more dangerous than being outdoors.”

It’s a concern that’s been echoed by Dr. Monica Gandhi. She’s a professor at the UCSF School of Medicine, the Associate Division Chief (Clinical Operations/Education) of the school’s Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine. She’s also become a favorite of local news organizations for her willingness to question public health policies and suggest alternative, real-world approaches to pandemic management.

According to Gandhi, San Francisco’s vague language around the stay-at-home order — which officials announced would continue for an unknown period of time via a hastily-sent press release on New Year’s Eve — is the wrong approach. “Telling people what they can do instead of what they can’t do will give people just some sort of off valve to stick with these shutdowns until the surge comes down,” Gandhi tells NBC Bay Area, but “I think we’re clamping down too hard.”

The city’s indefinite extension of the stay-at-home order “is not indicated by CA state parameters or current rates of hospitalizations/ICU capacity,” Gandhi tweeted on January 1. Speaking with KPIX, she elaborated, saying, “We never reached those hospitalizations or ICU capacity concerns that the state had set as metrics for this degree of shutdown ... And then to continue it indefinitely, as kind of our New Year’s present to San Francisco, didn’t make sense to me.”

Gandhi’s colleague, UCSF Associate Dean for Regional Campuses Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, is also moving in Gandhi’s side. He definitely urges everyone to remain at home, telling KTVU that “the rest of the Bay Area and the state is one fire with COVID. So the chance of you encountering someone with COVID without symptoms is high.” That said, he tells KPIX, that warning was better heard at the beginning of the pandemic “because it was new, everyone was afraid.” These days, people are less worried, perhaps — but California’s case rate is triple what it was, the Bay Area News Group reports, in those early, frightening days.

Now, he says, there’s “different messaging coming through that didn’t make sense to folks — like closing playgrounds or not keeping public schools open — I think that led people to wonder and question. At that point, some people just shut down.”

The city’s dining lobby, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, wasn’t in attendance at the demonstration but they, too, are asking city officials to explain the logic behind the current shutdown. “While the GGRA supports the right for peaceful protest and shares the frustration and pain of our restaurant community regarding the shutdown of socially distanced outdoor dining,” a GGRA spokesperson tells Eater SF, “given the surge in COVID-19 numbers and concerns over spread of the virus, we have not been involved in the organization of in-person protests and rallies.”

According to a spokesperson, since December they’ve been focused on a more socially distant form of protest, an email campaign that allows “restaurants and customers to send letters to city officials demanding greater transparency and financial support for the industry.”

But demonstrations, tweets from doctors, and emails might not do much to reopen outdoor dining or other activities in San Francisco. Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Mayor London Breed said plainly that “at this point, San Francisco and the entire Bay Area are under the stay-at-home order for the near future. That means we currently have no control over lifting most restrictions, like those related to outdoor dining or personal services.”

“What we do have control over,” she said, “is what we do to closely follow the health orders. We do have control over our individual actions, which can lead us to improve our numbers so we can keep people healthy, save lives, and get out from under these state restrictions.”