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The exterior of Mourad restaurant in downtown San Francisco

‘It’s Just a Nightmare That’s Not Going to End’

No pandemic playbook could have prepared Bay Area restaurant owners for Omicron

Mourad

The holiday surge has arrived in San Francisco restaurants: On Tuesday afternoon, chef Mourad Lahlou and the team at his Michelin-starred Moroccan fine dining destination contacted diners to cancel reservations after someone on staff tested positive for COVID-19. Chef Matt Horn, just weeks away from debuting his long-awaited second restaurant, Kowbird, phoned a hospital arranging tests for his kids; they’d been sick and he wanted to be sure it’s a cold. Jessica Kapoor, chief of staff for Saison Hospitality Group, looked over reservations for the weekend from home, where she’d been quarantining after a COVID exposure last week.

As the alarmingly fast-spreading Omicron variant sweeps across the country, San Francisco restaurant owners once again find themselves weighing a host of unappealing options, including closing temporarily and weathering the financial fallout or operating through the holiday season despite being potentially understaffed and ill-equipped to keep their communities safe. It’s not a new routine, but experience doesn’t make the decisions any less terrifying, especially considering many businesses have already been battered by the past 18 months. “I did not fucking see this coming at all,” Lahlou says. “I thought we were over the hump. It’s just a nightmare that’s not going to end.”

Lahlou says his downtown San Francisco restaurant was “booked solid” through the end of the year and estimates every week the restaurant is closed could cost between $150,000 and $200,000 in revenue. It’s a crushing blow when coupled with cancellations stemming from the J.P. Morgan healthcare conference going virtual — plus the fact that he’s still paying off PPP loans and back rent from earlier in the pandemic. “Do you just keep taking hits?” Lahlou says. “I really don’t know. I really don’t have the answers.”

He’s not the only one looking for guidance. Unlike in March 2020, when the city locked down entirely, and in November 2020, when restaurants closed for indoor dining, Omicron finds San Francisco restaurants without many clear restrictions in place. Indoor dining is on, though customers are required to show proof of vaccination, and there are no social distancing requirements. The lack of mandatory safety measures puts the onus of protecting both staff and customers on business owners, who have few options but to voluntarily close their restaurants during what’s normally one of the busiest times of the year. A growing number of restaurants and bars — AL’s Place and Chezchez in the Mission both announced temporary closures on Instagram, and a number of East Bay spots including Daytrip and Friends and Family, are doing the same.

Others are pushing forward. Chef Matt Horn opened his well-loved barbecue restaurant in the middle of what could reasonably be called the worst days of the pandemic. Now, just as he’s about ready to debut his much-anticipated sophomore effort, Omicron arrives on the scene. Horn says he’s trying to stay positive, but he is concerned. “The whole spirit of the restaurant industry is cooking, love, community, and fostering relationships. To see restaurants shutting down, it feels like people are beginning to feel discouraged,” Horn says.

He’s excited to bring Kowbird to fruition; the soul food restaurant honors his family and the South with a menu built around exceptionally crispy fried chicken. But having to worry about the safety of his staff and customers puts a damper on the mood surrounding the opening. He had hoped to be able to throw a big grand opening celebration in January, but now the pitmaster says he doesn’t think it’s something the community wants — and honoring the West Oakland community is a core tenant of everything he does. Horn says he’s leaning on faith to stay resilient, but opening another restaurant under the shadow of COVID-19 is hard. “I don’t think the restaurant industry has lost hope,” he says. “But I do think there’s a growing loss of optimism.”

The live fire kitchen at Angler with hanging flowers
Embarcadero restaurant Angler
Patricia Chang

But as much as this year can feel like a piercing echo of spring 2020, Kapoor points out there are some key differences. Having already weathered the ups-and-downs of previous surges, the teams at Saison, Angler, and Copas have a pandemic playbook to work from. Restaurant owners can opt to hold back tables to reduce the number of diners inside, close indoor dining, or temporarily close if they feel they need. None of the options bring much comfort, but at least they’re familiar for anyone who’s been running a restaurant for the last 18 months. “We’re just having to be very fluid and really pivot on the dime,” she says. “But I think that’s what COVID has taught us to do and here we are again, another test.”

Kapoor says she’s not sure what the coming weeks hold for the restaurants; she can’t predict whether or not the restaurants will be forced to close. For now, she says the team is still expecting it to be a busy few days going into the holiday weekend. Kapoor will be home until she can safely return to work. “All of the sudden you just feel so helpless,” she says of being unable to lend a hand. “Be grateful for the people around you and the little things, you know?”

Update: December 22nd, 2021 3:38 p.m.: This story has been updated to remove private health information.

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