Saturday, March 6

Santa Clara County restaurants brace for outdoor dining ban starting this Sunday – Palo Alto Online

Bay Area officials’ Friday announcement that they will expedite the state’s new stay-at-home order means that Santa Clara County restaurants have just two days before outdoor dining will be shut down temporarily.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Thursday that all sectors other than retail and essential operations would be closed in regions of the state where less than 15% of intensive care unit beds are available under a new regional stay-at-home order. But five Bay Area counties — Santa Clara, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties — and the city Berkeley decided to implement the new order in the coming days rather than wait until local hospitals are near crisis.

Santa Clara County restaurants will have to revert to takeout and delivery only as of this Sunday, Dec. 6, at 10 p.m., through Jan. 4. San Mateo County is not participating in the early order.

“We understand that the closures under the state order will have a profound impact on our local businesses,” Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said. “However, if we act quickly, we can both save lives and reduce the amount of time these restrictions have to stay in place, allowing businesses and activities to reopen sooner.”

It’s a blow — though not an altogether surprising one given mounting warnings about unprecedented levels of COVID-19 in the region — for restaurants that have been relying on outdoor dining to bring in revenue, particularly during the holidays when their dining rooms would usually be booked for parties and corporate events. Many invested in parklets and extensive outdoor dining set-ups, particularly in streets that have been closed to traffic like University Avenue in Palo Alto, Castro Street in Mountain View and Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park.

“Going back to takeout and delivery, it’s going to be really hard. It’s not a model we can survive on,” said Anu Bhambri, who owns Rooh on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. “Without any stimulus package or any help from the government it’s going to be very hard to survive.”

Rooh’s landlord paid to build the restaurant’s parklet, Bhambri said, but she recently purchased additional heaters and new tents to prepare for the winter. She immediately thought of the implications for inventory at Rooh, where outdoor dining sales outpace takeout.

Patio heaters are just one of the additional costs Zareen Khan has incurred for outdoor dining at her eponymous restaurants in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Redwood City. Heaters that used to go for $150 are now as expensive as $400 and much harder to come by, she said.

She’s frustrated by the new restrictions, which she said are penalizing small businesses that have already been barely treading water for eight months. She’s reduced prices at Zareen’s and feels like she’s constantly advertising discounts to bring in more business. She told her employees on Friday that they will start taking turns taking time off to manage staffing levels with the loss of outdoor dining.

“I request the county be more creative in how to control COVID,” Khan said. “Closing businesses is not a solution.”

During a press conference on Friday, Contra Costa Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said “any kind of activity that involves taking off your mask to eat or drink — even though outdoors is safer, even outdoors poses a risk for COVID spread. With the high risk of transmission in our communities, outdoor dining is more risky than it was two months ago.”

Lars Smith, co-owner of State of Mind Public House in Los Altos, felt a grim kind of resilience in the face of Friday’s news. He feels better equipped to help his restaurant navigate another shutdown, having done it before. He knows now that he can keep on more staff than he did in March, when in a panic they laid off front-of-house staff and cut employees’ hours — and then were overwhelmed by a spike in takeout business.

At La Bodeguita del Medio in Palo Alto, however, co-owner Michael Ekwall was facing the realization that without outdoor dining, he’ll have to cut his staff of 18 employees to about six. He’s also bracing for the stay-at-home order to last beyond early January.

“It’s a challenge to have to indefinitely let most of our people go,” he said. “I don’t think realistically that we’re going to bounce back and this is going to be over on Jan. 4. I wonder how many of my business comrades are going to make it through this period.”

Judy Kleinberg, CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, predicted there will be a spike in unemployment applications in the wake of the new stay-at-home order.

“Because it’s only takeout, all those waiters and bus boys and girls are going to be laid off,” she said. “The economic downstream damage is not just to the restaurant. It’s the workforce that really takes the brunt of this.”

She’s been advocating at the county level for relief for small businesses; the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is set to discuss next week a proposed small business loan program as well as a cap on the delivery fees third party platforms can charge restaurants.

Across the Peninsula, local restaurateurs’ minds were quickly turning to ideas for boosting business, from social media posts advertising the final two days of outdoor dining this weekend to new takeout menus. Pavel Sirotin of Bevri in Palo Alto said he plans to revive a ghost kitchen concept he tested out a few months ago and is exploring other partnerships to stay afloat.

Several owners expressed a sadly common refrain in the industry: Without another federal support package, many independent restaurants will not make it through another shutdown.

“We’re getting mostly restrictions and closures without any help to survive,” Sirotin said.

Sirotin urged people to continue ordering takeout from locally owned restaurants, which he recently heard described as a “citizen’s responsibility.”

“It’s really true. If we want to keep eating good and interesting food … we need to get together and help independent restaurants,” he said.

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