As seated dining returns to Wine Country after coronavirus lockdown, hard-hit restaurants adjust to many new rules, long road to recovery
Restaurant dining is returning to parts of Wine Country after more than two months of lockdown to slow the coronavirus, but not before a major overhaul in the way many establishments operate to meet new pandemic safety guidelines.
And what's now required of restaurants and patrons under these California and local standards has some owners wondering how long the economic recovery will be for an industry that's among the hardest hit by the shelter-at-home orders.
After Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 12 rolled out guidelines for restaurants to welcome back diners, La Toque was originally set to resume seatings at the Michelin-star restaurant around the same mid-June timeframe as the planned reopening of the Westin Verasa Napa hotel where it's been located for nearly a dozen years.
But then Newsom on May 18 accelerated the restaurant reopening time frame by lowering the threshold for counties to move into the expanded second of four reopening stages, which also allows "nonessential" retail and shops to reopen.
The following day, Napa became the first Bay Area county to get the green light from Sacramento to join dozens of other counties so far in allowing diners to enjoy their meals at the establishments instead of just via take-out or delivery, as had been permitted with the first shelter orders in mid-March. Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties on Wednesday evening were listed among the counties to have the state's OK to also move into this expanded second stage of the four-phase reopening of the California economy.
Readiness criteria for moving into this expanded phase include a low prevalence of COVID-19 cases, an expanded testing capacity and evidence that the county has the necessary infrastructure to detect and safely isolate new cases. Sonoma County planned to file its attestation of readiness Wednesday, and likely will start with allowing outdoor seating before progressing to indoor tables as public health data warrants, according to The Press Democrat.
With COVID-19 case and death figures in the top 20 of California counties, largely because of its older population, Marin County is monitoring its pandemic indicators before moving forward with opening more business sectors beyond the curbside retail and manufacturing that were added last Monday, county officials told the board of supervisors last week . Meanwhile, business groups and county staff expect to have guidelines for each industry sector posted at MarinRecovers.org by the supervisors meeting this Tuesday.
‘LOTS TO DO'
With Napa County's movement into the expanded phase 2, La Toque chef and owner Ken Frank, who helped craft Napa County's reopening guidelines for restaurants, thinks it will be possible to move forward with a “soft reopening” of his establishment the first week of next month to make sure staff can practice the new way of high-class service in time for a full reopening Friday, June 5.
“There's lots to do,” Frank said Wednesday. “It's like opening a new restaurant. It's gonna be exciting, and we're about two weeks out.”
Napa Chamber of Commerce, on whose board Frank sits, helped the county draft reopening guidelines for a number of business sectors, adapting the nearly 100 points of the statewide standards for the restaurant business into three dozen bullet items. Napa's pointers cover how 6-foot social distancing and enhanced sanitation are applied to the front of the house (where guests enter and are seated) and back of the house (kitchen, dishwashing, receiving and office).
“Napa is focused on setting a very high standard,” Frank said. “I don't think any of us think that opening is just going to turn the switch back on. You need to earn the confidence of our customers that we can operate truly safely. And the way I see it, the best way to do that is to start with our teams. If I can keep myself and my team safe, it keeps our community safe.”
What workers and patrons will experience in the restaurant of the pandemic era include temperature checks on arrival, tables that are bare of service settings and condiments, requirements to wear masks (except while at the table) and plastic dividers in situations when crew or customers must interact.
La Toque already is planning to have an increase in order errors because of miscommunications between masked customers and servers, which is not what's expected from service in even noisy high-end establishments.
Guests will have to call or log on ahead of time for seating, then parties (of no more than six) will have to wait in their vehicles for a text when their table is ready. Names and contact information of everyone in a party will be kept confidentially for 21 days, in case county workers need to trace exposure to the virus.