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Even Reduced Capacity Indoor Dining For St. Patrick’s Day Threatens to be ‘Another Halloween’

A drinking holiday as the Bay Area reopens could be a dangerous combination

A shuttered bar in San Francisco on St. Patrick’s Day, 2020
A St. Patrick’s Day shutdown in 2020 helped Bay Area coronavirus cases remain low, so news that the city might reopen for the 2021 holiday is stirring fears
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

San Francisco hadn’t confirmed even a single coronavirus case on March 16, 2020, when Mayor London Breed announced that SF and five other Bay Area counties would shelter-in-place the following night, stopping most St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in their tracks. It was a move that health experts and pundits applauded in the months that followed, with many suggesting that by essentially canceling the free-flowing holiday, the region narrowly avoided a New Orleans-like super-spreader event. A year later, the lockdown-weary city is chafing under restrictions like a second ban on indoor dining — a ban that could be lifted at an exceedingly risky time, and send the city’s case rate spiking again.

We’ve all seen the headlines: Although February is already at California’s second-highest COVID-19 death rate since the pandemic began, Bay Area area counties are expected to re-enter the red tier of the state’s color-coded reopening plan within the next few weeks, which means that across the region, indoor dining would be allowed to resume at 25 percent capacity.

Speaking at a media event on Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom said that within days, “we’ll see counties move, not just from purple to red, but more and more red to orange, and I anticipate based on the number that are already in orange, you’ll see many more in that yellow tier as well, which is the most permissive of the tiers.”

Some prominent local restaurant owners, seemingly frustrated by Newsom’s inability to see into the future and/or will a virus into submission, are taking this moment to urge San Francisco officials to “go against” medical experts and reopen indoor dining. They’re not the only ones who are frustrated: one county official, who spoke to Eater SF in confidence, says that “the state doesn’t tell us shit,” and that Newsom’s office provides them with little advance word on matters like tier changes. “If we’re going to go to red on [a] Tuesday,” that official says, referring to Newsom’s weekly tier change announcement, “we might know on Sunday. That’s it.”

That combination of cautious state-level communication and the unpredictability of a rapidly spreading virus means headlines like “3 Bay Area Counties Could Move To Red Tier Next Week” are guesses, at best. While San Francisco officials declined to speculate on when the city might officially enter the red tier, Laurie Thomas, the executive director of SF dining lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), says that by her calculations, if trends continue as they have been, San Francisco will exit the purple tier — which restricts restaurants to outdoor service only — and reach the red tier “by mid-March.”

Thomas, who says that indoor dining “is crucial to the survival of the restaurant industry,” also expects that San Francisco won’t reopen indoor dining as soon as Newsom announced the tier change. “We’re advocating for a reopening within 48 hours” of the announcement, Thomas says, but the ultimate decision is with San Francisco officials, which in the past has opted to keep indoor dining shut down until the county reached the less-restrictive, orange tier.

One reason officials might delay an indoor reopening, one city hall staffer tells Eater SF, is St. Patrick’s Day 2021. The March 17 holiday could come within days of an indoor reopening, and with residents and prominent industry voices “so over” safe COVID-19 behaviors, “we could see another Halloween,” the staffer says. They’re referring to a spike following last year’s holiday that stopped an expansion of indoor dining in its tracks, only a month after it reopened. “Some people don’t care any more, they’re going to party in the Marina and we’ll be back where we started again,” the official said, noting that though 2020’s Halloween celebration was more subdued than those in the past, they observed “packed bars and parklets” throughout the night.

Thomas expressed similar concerns to Eater SF, saying that “responsible restaurant owners are suffering” because some venues fail to enforce social distancing, seating, and mask rules. “It’s not fair that a couple places that just don’t care have the power to get everything shut down again,” she says of potential outbreaks from unmasked, indoor gatherings.

The solution, Thomas says, is “better enforcement from the city,” including crackdowns on venues that don’t comply with health orders. “They need to shut these places down so the rest of us can stay open,” she says.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management, crackdowns and enforcement are driven by complaints made by citizens. “Citizens who believe businesses are in violation of health orders should call 311,” a spokesperson says. It’s an uncomfortable thing, calling out one restaurant in hopes of saving all the others. But that’s truly what folks who report violations are doing, Thomas says. “Every place that’s still open is hanging on by their fingernails,” Thomas says. If everyone plays by the rules, the next reopening might be for good, Thomas says, but if folks drop their guards and infections spike yet again, “we’re not going to survive another shutdown.”

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