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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.”

Seeking knowledge

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.”

A rainy day followed by a day of sunshine, as happened last week, will keep Servino on his toes.

“It’s much more a real-time transition from day to day,” he said.

Outdoor saloon in Napa?

After setting up in a public park behind his restaurant this summer, Chuck Meyer is looking ahead to how he will operate Napa Palisades Saloon this winter without indoor dining. Meyer also operates First and Franklin Marketplace, a downtown Napa deli.

“I thought we'd have a little more time to get everything ready and prepare,” Meyer said. “It came as a shock that it happened so quickly.”

Still, Meyer isn’t so sure operating Napa Palisades outside will be the best option — even though the businesses on either side of the restaurant are closed, giving him more space. Meyer has a tent company coming out soon to evaluate how best to configure the area.

Since the pandemic, revenue has been down about 50%, but Meyer expects that percentage to drop to at least 20% if he operates only outdoors this winter.

“It's really only the hardiest of people who are going to want to sit outside,” he said. “I'm not holding out any great hope that it's going to be our saving grace.”

Meyer is more invested in plumping up his online orders and take-out options, to include daily specials that can feed up to four people, and a pop-up chicken wing concept through DoorDash that he’s calling Winging It.

“It's basically like your football party and package delivered to your door,” he said, acknowledging that creativity is key these days. “You definitely have to have a comfortable relationship with risk.”

At least one restaurant in Napa could no longer sustain the risk.

Miminashi will serve its last meal on Monday, according to owners Jessica and Curtis Di Fede, stating on Instagram that as “winter and it’s challenges arrive, PPP funds dry up, and the ability to financially stay afloat after so many months of struggle leaves us adrift, we see the writing on the wall.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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