Outdoor Dining not Enough for Service Industry

Everyone seems to agree on the solution — more direct financial aid — but the money is still not reaching restaurants that need it.

As 2020 gives way to 2021, many are finding some cause for hope after a dismal year. President Joe Biden has issued executive orders to halt construction of Donald Trump’s border wall, reverse the travel ban from majority Muslim countries, and, in a signal that he intends to eschew his predecessor’s cowboy philosophy toward the pandemic, he has ordered masks to be worn on federal property.

And yet, even as some will appreciate the new administration’s approach to COVID-19 — especially here, in the liberal bastion that is San Francisco — there is at least one local cohort that is less enthusiastic about the safety measures, which progressive city and state officials have put in place to combat the novel coronavirus: restaurateurs.

“We’ve been roped into a lot of things,” says Justin Lew, a partner and co-owner at Horsefeather, an upscale neighborhood restaurant on Divisadero Street. While Lew agrees that keeping indoor options limited is an essential part of a successful public health strategy, he believes that restrictions on outdoor dining have been onerous and are unsupported by science. “There’s not been any information that I’ve seen regarding the effects of outdoor dining with the spread of COVID-19.”

On this point, Monica Gandhi, a physician and infectious disease expert with UCSF, has Lew’s back. In a Dec. 4 San Francisco Chronicle article on the risks of outdoor dining, Gandhi said that if diners and restaurant staff follow four essential protocols — wearing masks, practicing social distancing, keeping their hands clean, and ensuring that there is sufficient ventilation — the danger of eating in the open air with members of one’s own pod is quite low.

“There is no evidence that I can find anywhere in the world that outdoor dining with those four procedures in play increases the risk of COVID-19,” she told the Chronicle.

And so, when San Francisco entered yet another lockdown in early December — in the wake of revelations that Mayor London Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom had both recently attended dinners at The French Laundry — restaurant owners like Lew were at their wits’ end.

It felt to Lew as if bars and restaurants had been kicked to the curb. “I understand the dangers,” he says. “People are sitting there with their masks down in a social environment, but we’re still on the hook to landlords, who are on the hook to banks.” 

Horsefeather’s outdoor dining setup. Courtesy photo

Dzu Nguyen, Horsefeather’s general manager, feels the same way. During the pandemic, he says, small businesses have been “left high and dry.”

“It’s as if the city wants the food and beverage industry, an industry that is at the core of life and culture in this city, to fail,” he says.

As of last week, the city — and much of the state — is once again allowing outdoor dining at a limited capacity. In announcing his decision to end the months-long stay-at-home order, Newsom cited favorable projections for ICU capacity. However, considering that it comes even as public health officials warn of a more contagious variant of COVID-19 rippling across California, one wonders if the Governor’s move is also aimed at quelling outcry from the service industry.

‘Do or Die’

Whatever the reason, for restaurateurs like Lew and Nguyen, it has been a do or die time.

“They’ve shut down all these bars and restaurants with no subsidies,” Lew says. While he counts himself lucky that Horsefeather has “some padding,” Lew and his team still had to make the difficult decision to furlough their entire staff — many of whom live in the neighborhood and are career service industry professionals. 

“It’s not too little too late for us, but there are lots who feel that way,” Lew says, referring to the lifting of the latest lockdown order. “We have a great location. I can’t speak for other people, but many who are close to closing probably feel that way.”

Jen Snyder, legislative aid for Supervisor Dean Preston — whose district includes Horsefeather — says that elected officials are well aware of the plight the service industry faces.

“You’re weighing the possibility of getting a disease you could die from, or give to someone else, with the ability to economically survive at all,” Snyder says. “What pain is worse?”

Breed also acknowledges the strain the restaurant industry is under. On Dec. 14, the mayor tweeted: “Even before this most recent surge, restaurants had gone months without the revenue they need to survive and keep their staff employed,” and called on Congress to take action at a national level.

Nonetheless, Snyder says that figuring out how to help restaurants has proven “tragically difficult.”

Earlier this month — nearly 10 months after the city issued its first stay-at-home order — Breed announced a $62 million relief plan for small businesses. For his part, Lew had not heard of the aid package when he first spoke with SF Weekly. He says he follows the mayor on social media, but hadn’t seen any information on how to apply for funds. “It might be there but it hasn’t been laid out to me,” Lew says.

Horsefeather’s outdoor dining. Courtesy photo

Horsefeather recently began the process of applying for the second round of federal Payroll Protection Program loans. “Those will be quite helpful,” Lew says. “Unlike last time we have an idea of how we can spend the money.”

When the first wave of PPP aid was issued in the spring, Horsefeather was hurrying to make sure all their employees were laid off. This seemed like the best thing to do at the time in order to ensure their staff could collect unemployment. But given that a certain percentage of PPP loans must be spent on paying employees, it left the restaurant scrambling to figure out how it could legally spend the money.

Snyder says restaurateurs have every right to be angry and that Preston’s office is looking for options to support the industry. In November, one of the ballot measures Preston wrote and passed was Prop I. It doubles the taxes on the sale of buildings over $10 million dollars — mostly mansions and skyscrapers. The revenue goes to backpaying COVID-19 impacted private rents, but does not yet include businesses.

Snyder says Preston’s office wants to see that change. The supervisor also would like to see the Biden administration put forward a plan to help individuals and small businesses.

“It’s absurd that we aren’t [federally] protecting people,” Snyder says. “It’s unfair to come out of a pandemic you did not cause with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.”

Snyder points out other solutions, too. The Broken Window Reimbursement program, in coordination with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, is a way to protect District 5 businesses. If any businesses suffer physical damage during shelter-in-place, owners can seek immediate reimbursement.

Pay Up or Shut Down

The way Donald Hout sees it, the only way restaurants will make it out of this alive is with financial support from the government. And the longtime San Francisco resident, who started going to Horsefeather just before the shutdown, certainly hopes Lew and his partners make it to the other side.

“I can truthfully say at this point that their burger is still the best in the city,” says Hout, who was working full time as a sommelier and wine retail manager for the Absinthe Group — a collection of businesses including Comstock Saloon in North Beach — before the pandemic. However, since October, Hout has been either furloughed or working part-time, like so many others. His years in the industry have him agreeing with Lew.

“We desperately need ongoing funding to keep us afloat, or the lockdown will drown even the best of us in the industry,” Hout says.

As grim as the past year has been for restaurants, the team at Horsefeather is still finding inspiration in the local community. Nguyen says that there is a general spirit of camaraderie amongst all the service workers on Divisadero Street. Lew notes that the neighboring 4505 Barbecue (voted the best BBQ in 2020 by SF Weekly) is doing a great job of pivoting to takeout dining.

Horsefeather has been working on their own solutions to local and state COVID-19 restrictions — turning to services like DoorDash and GrubHub, and partnering with San Francisco City Impact to deliver meals five days a week to grade schoolers. As of last Thursday, Horsefeather resumed outdoor table service. Brunch service starts up again this coming weekend.

Photo courtesy of Horsefeather

While Lew and his colleagues are happy to be seating patrons once more, Amy Cleary of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, says that local eateries need more assistance.

“Outdoor dining will not let us bring all our employees back, and doesn’t solve all the financial stress,” Cleary says, agreeing with Hout’s assessment. “While we are grateful to have reached this next step on the road to reopening, we continue to strongly advocate for additional federal, state and city financial aid.”

At the end of the day, Lew says, money is what keeps the lights on, the fires burning, and his staff paid. But, beyond that, Lew hopes that 2021 brings clearer direction from public officials.

“The direction from the state and the local government has been confusing. They put out these metrics, but they seem a little fair-weather,” Lew says. “A neighbor of ours at Madrone Art Bar said ‘It’s not a pivot anymore. We’re ballerinas just spinning around.’ We’re just trying to stay afloat.”

Nick Veronin and Benjamin Schneider contributed to this story.

Paolo Bicchieri is an SF Weekly contributor. Twitter: @Paoloshmaolo

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