It’s been a long pandemic for everyone in California, but alcohol-focused establishments might have had it the hardest. The first to shutter when the coronavirus crisis hit the state, breweries, distilleries, wineries, and bars that serve drinks but no food have been closed down for most of the past year, restricted to retail sales alone. Relaxed state-level restrictions will allow many those businesses to reopen starting Saturday, March 13 — and will allow folks to order a drink without food for the first time in nearly a year.
It was March 15, 2020, when Gov. Gavin Newsom first said that all bars, wineries, breweries, and distilleries that don’t also serve meals should close down to slow the spread of the then-novel coronavirus. Within days, restaurants across the state also closed their dining rooms, offering takeout meals only. Days after that, the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) announced that bars could serve cocktails to-go, as long as those were ordered alongside what they referred to a “bona fide” meals — that is, a full entree, not just a side of chips and dip.
The shutdown and subsequent meal requirement, California’s Department of Public Health (CA DPH) said that the time, is because the same things that attract us to bars — the inhibition-lowering effects of alcohol, and the culture of mingling and lingering — is what prompts the spread of the virus. Even outdoor drinking was off the table, the DPH said, as “alcohol consumption slows brain activity, reduces inhibition, and impairs judgment, factors which contribute to reduced compliance with recommended core personal protective measures, such as the mandatory use of face coverings and maintaining six feet of distance from people outside of one’s own household.”
But with case rates falling as vaccination rates rise, California is in a very different place than it was just six months ago. That’s why, the CA DPH said in a Thursday announcement, the agency would adjust the activities allowed across the tiers of the state’s color-coded reopening map, with a focus on the alcohol industry.
According to the CA DPH, as of Saturday, March 13, breweries, wineries and distilleries that do not serve meals will be allowed to reopen in every county across the state. If those businesses are in counties in the most restrictive tiers, purple (“widespread risk”) and red (“substantial risk”), they are restricted to outdoor service, a 90-minute time limit, and an 8 p.m. shutdown. In those regions, bars without food (which occupy a different licensing category than breweries, wineries, and distilleries) must remain closed.
Orange (“moderate risk”) counties have even looser restrictions: Bars may open for outdoor drinking, while breweries, wineries, and distilleries may open for indoor service at 25 percent capacity or 100 people. As of publication time, the only California counties that occupy the orange tier are Plumas, Sierra, and Mariposa counties. San Francisco officials have indicated that the city could enter the orange tier as soon as March 23.
It’s not until a county enters the least-restrictive, yellow (“minimal risk”) tier of reopening that bars will be allowed to resume indoor service, with a reduced capacity of 25 percent or 100 people. At publication time, only California’s Alpine County, a Sierra Nevada-adjacent region with a population of about 1,100 people, is in the yellow tier.
Of course, all this is contingent on county officials, who have the final word on what reopens when. San Francisco officials, for example, have typically been more conservative in what reopenings they allow, lagging behind state restriction levels in an effort to ensure that case rates remain low.
As of publication time, city officials had not responded to Eater SF’s questions on if they intend to follow the state’s guidelines, or if it will institute stricter rules for foodless venues as the regional reopening continues.