“Pivot” has always been something of a code word in the business world, but for restaurateurs trying to survive the pandemic, the term is starting to sound less like a euphemism and more like a curse. It’s come to signify the piecemeal procedures restaurants across San Francisco have been taking to make it to the other side of COVID-19: takeout, PPP loans, and expanded outdoor seating — that is, as long as our “San Francisco summer” lasts.
But when the city announced that indoor table service could resume at 25 percent capacity or less on Sept. 30, it didn’t necessarily come as a relief.
Great ventilation and constant mask-wearing are both key for reducing transmission of the novel coronavirus, according to the CDC. That’s not always possible in an indoor dining scenario, where people have to take off their masks to eat and drink. So, as the pandemic wears on without a distributable vaccine in sight, restaurant owners are faced with an unenviable decision.
“We don’t want to transmit a deadly virus within our restaurant. But at the same time, if we close, then we go bankrupt,” Christian Alberston, owner of The Monk’s Kettle, says. “It really felt like this impossible situation.”
The survival of these restaurants, and the financial security of the people who work in them, hinges on the demand of consumers and the health risk restaurant workers assume to feed them. As they work to balance the interests of all parties, restaurant owners are grappling with the ethical and financial implications of reopening, and servers are confronting their own mortality.
While some restaurants have been gung-ho in reopening for indoor dining, others have held back, remaining firm in their conviction to not reopen indoors. At least, not until there’s a vaccine.
Mask Up, Seatbelts On
Vanessa Garcia, owner of Seven Mile House, already had a brush with indoor dining in June, when San Mateo County allowed restaurants to reopen.
But she quickly saw that trying to convince bar patrons — especially drunk bar patrons — to remain in their seats, and refrain from the type of boisterous, high-volume conversations that produce more airborne respiratory droplets, was a near-impossible task. She also realized that her customers would not only be putting each other at risk. They’d be a danger to her employees, as well.
“People who want to sit at bars just want to keep on drinking. And they spend a lot,” Garcia says. “But the problem with that is, once you drink a lot, you get really loose, and you don’t care about the rules.”
Garcia tried putting up plexiglass in front of her bartenders. She tried printing signs that told people to mask-up and respect the workers. She tried reprimanding them, like a school teacher: “Can you just stay in your seat?” “I should even put, ‘put your seatbelt on’ [the menus].” Garcia says.
Eventually, Garcia closed Seven Mile House’s bar when Gov. Newsom’s state-wide order closed indoor dining in July. Those few weeks were already enough for the workers at Seven Mile House, who told Garcia they did not want the restaurant to reopen indoors again, even when San Mateo County re-loosened indoor dining restrictions on Sept. 22.
“A lot of the decisions I’ve made in COVID have been based on what my employees want me to do,” Garcia says. “My first priority is to make sure that they feel safe working at Seven Mile House.” Earlier this year, Garcia closed her 162-year-old restaurant out of concern for her mother, who is over 70 years old and bakes sweet treats to sell.
It’s a similar situation for Alberston. His wife and daughter have asthma, and his in-laws — who they assist daily — are elderly, making the four more vulnerable to the effects of a respiratory illness. Alberston is a self-proclaimed news junkie, meaning he’s been following coronavirus news since the pandemic first hit the United States back in the spring. So well before indoor dining restrictions were partially lifted, Alberston was already hyper-conscious about COVID-19, learning about its transmission patterns and its affinity for enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces.
For the most part, customers have been following the rules at The Monk’s Kettle. Those who wish to dine outdoors there will be treated to a three-minute conversation about the procedures of mask-wearing — not just for the patrons, but for the restaurant workers who are constantly exposed to changing tables. And as for the five percent of customers who don’t: “It’s usually the last time they do it before they have to get up and leave.”
But even full compliance with mask-wearing rules doesn’t protect everyone completely, especially in a restaurant setting. You have to take your mask off to eat or drink.
“If you’re indoors, that’s 12 minutes or 25 minutes or however long it takes you to eat a meal that someone is going to be maskless,” Alberston says. “And there’s the danger right there.”
Right now, Alberston has been able to hire about 75 percent of his staff back from the start of the pandemic, when The Monk’s Kettle had to lay off everyone but himself and a chef. Garcia was able to bring all of but one of her employees back to work. It’s enough to keep them afloat at the moment, but when winter comes, the future is much less certain.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the winter,” Garcia told her staff. “You guys have to save up.” She ordered space heaters and a weatherproof awning in hopes of continuing outdoor dining past October.
It’s a tenuous situation, one that Alberston feels should not be entirely left up to him and his coworkers to navigate. He wishes there was more federal funding to weather this crisis.
“This is a national emergency,” Albertson says. “And citizens are being asked to fight it.”
Schroeder’s, a German restaurant in the Financial District, is waiting until Oct. 20 to figure out whether or not they should return to indoor dining. What happens if they give the green light too early, and there’s another COVID-19 outbreak? If the city shuts down operations again, that doesn’t just mean disappointment — that also means that the food and supplies ordered for indoor dining will go to waste.
David Murphy, a general manager at Schroeder’s, has been working in the industry for three decades. He’s hopeful that if San Francisco is able to keep COVID-19 rates stable, they can open the restaurant for indoor dining safely, especially because Schroeder’s is on the larger side for a restaurant in the city. His generous estimate is that they can seat 58 people comfortably indoors. “Only a few restaurants in the city can accommodate that many people under the 25 percent restriction.”
Still, Murphy cannot think of a single restaurant that would be able to weather the COVID-19 era without serving at 75 percent of their regular capacity or more.
“Most restaurants in the city need to be at least 50 percent full (customer seating area) [sic] all the time to break even,” Connor Casey, CEO of Cellarmaker Brewing Co., wrote in an email to SF Weekly. Cellarmaker will not be opening for indoor dining out of concern for the staff’s safety. Even if they did, they would only be able to seat a dozen people.
For the restaurants that won’t be opening indoors, there’s takeout, PPP loans, and outdoor seating. But everything comes with its own caveat. Takeout cannot save a restaurant alone. Outdoor seating is contingent on good weather and available space. And PPP loans will eventually have to be paid back.
“The PPP loan is a bandaid on a hemorrhaging wound,” Murphy says. He wishes that there was more support from any level of government — local, state, or federal.
“It’s not ‘want,’” Murphy says. “It’s ‘need.’”
Alberston took to Facebook to voice his support for the RESTAURANTS Act — or Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive. The RESTAURANTS Act would establish a $120 billion fund for independent restaurants (so, not Shake Shack), giving them grants instead of loans.
“Without a proper federal response (something like the RESTAURANTS Act), bar and restaurant owners’ own personal (business/financial) survival is pitted against community (physical) survival,” Albertson wrote on Facebook.
But just the next day, President Donald Trump ordered stimulus negotiations to stop on Twitter until the 2020 presidential election is over.
Who Will Survive?
It’s unclear what will happen next — if indoor dining will be the boon independent restaurants desperately need, or if another COVID-19 outbreak is looming around the corner. When indoor dining restrictions were incrementally lifted, SF Weekly polled our Instagram followers for 24 hours to ask how they felt about the new rule.
The response was varied — many people were uncertain and scared. Others were excited. “Worry” was a common theme. “Placing the weight of the economy on the backs of the working class is sick, literally,” one user wrote. About 75 percent of our small sample size (79 respondents) said they would not dine indoors.
Garcia, Murphy, and Alberston all acknowledge the fortune their restaurants have had in one way or another: spacious outdoor dining, a pre-existing familiarity with food delivery apps like DoorDash, or enough indoor space to comfortably seat many guests without reaching past 25 percent capacity.
But not all spaces are as lucky. The list of permanent closures around San Francisco continues to grow, and Murphy worries that if nothing changes soon, the city’s small businesses and mom-and-pop-run shops will be quickly overtaken by large-scale corporate restaurants. “It’s going to completely change the dining scene.” Whatever happens now will shape San Francisco long past 2020.
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali