California Wine Country restaurants left out in the cold by new outdoors-only coronavirus rules
Any plans North Bay restaurateurs may have had to even partially operate their establishments indoors this winter have been dashed.
With coronavirus cases rising, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday moved most of the state’s 58 counties back to the purple tier, the most restrictive status.
With the exception of Lake County, which remains in the red tier and may seat people indoors at 25% capacity, the North Bay’s five other counties have folded up their tables and reopened their patios. Sonoma County has never moved out of purple.
Marin County, which moved from the orange tier back to red, put the kibosh on itself last Friday. The county’s public health officer, Matt Willis, decided that in the face of rising infections, it would be safest to shutter indoor dining altogether.
His decision, although made out of caution, has made the challenging months ahead for some restaurants even harder.
“Due to the ever-changing rules and regulations and the ambiguity of operating a business during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are unable to make proper forecasts or plan more than a few weeks in advance,” said Sheryl Cahill, owner of Station House Café and Side Street Kitchen in Point Reyes Station. “It is confusing and exhausting and puts additional stress on our staff as they try to take care of their own families and anticipate personal-income impacts of every stage along the way.”
Year-to-date, business at both of Cahill’s restaurants is down an average of 60%, she said. Even though it was helpful when indoor dining was allowed at 25% or 50%, it’s not a sustainable model.
“That we have made it this far is a feat in and of itself,” Cahill said.
Now she’s navigating her way into winter.
“Days are short, afternoons and evenings are cold, and rain is in the forecast,” Cahill said Tuesday, a day before the first significant rain of the season came. “(With) no indoor dining allowed and 100% rain forecast, we have only three employees on our schedule … and labor costs will undoubtedly run over.”
Cahill said she expects her restaurants will survive in the long term, but it won’t be easy.
“Emergency SBA loans, in addition to PPP, have been helpful but will have to be repaid and that makes it like starting all over again,” Cahill said, referring to the Small Business Administration’ seconomic injury disaster loans and Payroll Protection Program loans. “Without another round of coronavirus relief, the Heroes Act and the Restaurant Act, winter survival outlook for the restaurant industry is grim.”
A new study by Stanford University researchers published in Nature found limiting indoor gatherings during the pandemic is effective at helping tamp down new infections. Researchers used cell phone mobility data in 10 metropolitan cities, including San Francisco, to examine how people were moving around early on in the pandemic, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
According to the findings, most new infections were tied to full-service indoor restaurants because people tend to gather in groups and linger. The study also showed indoor service posed more than three times the risk of gyms, the second-highest category for infection risk, according to the outlet’s reporting.
Al fresco — like it or not
Natale Servino, co-owner with brother Vittorio of Servino Ristorante and Caffē Acri in Tiburon, said the second-generation family establishment in Marin County took a more cautious approach even when it was allowed to open indoors, waiting until the first of the month to make the move.
“It was really when the time changed and it started to get darker and cooler earlier that we felt it was time to open the dining room,” Servino said.
It didn’t last long.
Dining service is now back outside, with enough heat and covered dining space to keep customers comfortable, said Servino, who also switched out metal chairs for softer wood and fabric seats.
Still, when it’s rainy and windy, no amount of weatherproofing is going to work. On such days, Servino plans to quickly pivot back to focusing on the enhanced takeout service the family implemented early in the pandemic, which helped keep the restaurant afloat.
Servino declined to discuss revenue losses from the pandemic.
“We brought a lot of our favorite Italian products out of the kitchen and set up a (market) with dried pasta, San Marzano tomatoes (and) olive oil, all available for pickup with their to-go order,” he said. “As that became popular, we morphed into having pizza kits, where families could pick up our raw dough, marinara, mozzarella, all the ingredients and then make their pizzas at home.”