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San Francisco’s Reopening Continues Next Week With the Return of Bars and Expanded Indoor Dining

The city is set to loosen capacity limits, curfews, and — for the first time — restrictions on bars that don’t serve food, beginning March 25

A set of semi-circular red booths with white tablecloth-covered tables
The red booths at House of Prime Rib; next week, the restaurant can double the number of diners it squeezes into them
Patricia Chang

On Thursday, San Francisco Deputy Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip announced that city restaurants can expect to increase indoor dining capacity to 50 percent on Thursday, March 25 — the morning after the city plans to enter a lowered risk level on its tiered approach to reopening. Bars that don’t serve food, which, under current restrictions, have remained closed, are preparing for the biggest change, as the eased restrictions will allow them to finally open for outdoor service; until now, they’ve remained restricted to retail sales.

The announcement comes as San Francisco prepares to move from the red tier (indicating “substantial” risk of infection) to the orange tier (signaling “moderate” risk). Anne Taupier, director of development in the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, made clear that these plans could change if infection rates spike, or if state officials readjust their criteria for further reopening.

Limited indoor dining resumed in San Francisco on March 3, after the city moved out of the purple tier — the most restrictive, which forbade indoor dining and put a curfew on outdoor dining. That was the first time restaurants were allowed to reopen indoor dining since last November, when the city experienced a 250 percent increase in cases of COVID-19.

Currently, with the city in the red tier, restaurants offering indoor dining can only seat members of a shared household at each table, with a maximum of four people, and their overall dining room occupancy cannot exceed 25 percent. At outdoor tables, members of up to three households may gather, with a limit of six diners. And while those enjoying dinner al fresco have been able to do so as late as they please (or, until a restaurant closes for the night), indoor dining is currently limited by a 10 p.m. curfew.

If San Francisco enters the orange tier on March 24, restaurants can increase their indoor capacities to 50 percent, and the indoor dining curfew will be extended by an hour, to 11 p.m. In addition to the adjusted capacity limit and curfew, restaurants will now be allowed to seat members of three households at each table in their dining rooms, with a limit of six people per party.

The announcement of loosened restrictions is perhaps most impactful for bars that don’t offer food service, which haven’t yet been allowed to reopen. In the new orange tier, they will be allowed to reopen for outdoor service on the condition that patrons must be seated and not mingle with other tables — even to socialize with members of the same household. Bars that do serve food, which have already been allowed to reopen for indoor drinking at 25 percent of their capacity, may increase their capacities in line with the new regulations for indoor dining. Additionally, bars and restaurants that offer outdoor service can now serve alcohol without having to serve food.

The upcoming guidelines are also good news for food courts: In the red tier, they’ve been allowed to operate at either 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever number is smaller. Entering the orange tier, they will be able to increase to 50 percent capacity, with a limit of 200 people.

The news was welcomed by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the city’s dining lobby. “We are thrilled to receive this new guidance almost a week in advance of anticipated reopening, which will allow our businesses to implement what is needed and be able to bring back additional staff in a safe and timely manner,” the organization said in a statement.

San Francisco bars and restaurants have faced a turbulent year of city-mandated closures and reopenings, but as vaccination rollout ramps up and both diners and restaurant workers become protected from COVID-19, the exhausting cycle of opening and closing could be coming to an end in a matter of months. It’s still possible there will be another spike in cases, especially as dining rooms become more crowded, but restaurant insiders are hopeful that this time, that won’t be the case. “We continue to urge our restaurant members and San Francisco residents to follow these regulations,” the restaurant association said, “in order to give us the best chance to keep moving forward to fully reopen.”