As of today, sit-down restaurants can now legally operate in San Francisco — as long as patrons sit outside. But don’t expect a wave of Parisian terrace cafés just yet.
Just a fraction of the city’s of restaurants will be open for outdoor dining this weekend, with more planning to open next week. Still, the rule change is a major step towards city life returning to normal, and a hard-won milestone in San Francisco’s battle with COVID-19.
Fog City in Levi’s Plaza is one of the restaurants that opened today. General manager Brett Maurice says diners quickly materialized. “People are super excited to sit down and be waited on,” he says. “They’re sick of eating at home.”
He’s also optimistic that the change will improve his restaurant’s bottom line, which was only doing about 12 percent of its normal business as a take-out operation for the last month. (Fog City is currently serving walk-ins only, but other restaurants are only accepting reservations, so it’s wise to check before going.)
Fog City is operating six of its 10 outdoor tables to maintain social distancing and comply with city regulations. Restaurants that are already approved for outdoor dining can open immediately, as long as tables are spaced six feet apart. Tables are limited to six people, or more if the party is from the same household. Diners will be able to take off their masks to eat, but must put them back on whenever they leave their table. And yes, restaurant patrons will be able to go indoors to use the restroom.
As for the health implications of outdoor dining, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, thinks the city is ready for this new phase. “Overall I’m ok with it. With that said, there are things that diners need to think about when they go to different places,” he says. “You have to assess the COVID IQ of the restaurant.”
Dr. Chin-Hong recommends looking to see if all the wait staff are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, and noting whether hand sanitizer and handwashing stations are readily available. Using “inside voices,” dining in small groups, and limiting shared touchpoints will also help. Fog City, for instance, is encouraging diners to look at the menu on their phones using a QR code.
The many restaurants not currently designed for outdoor dining can apply to extend their footprint on to the sidewalk through the city’s Shared Spaces program. As long as restaurants’ outdoor dining plans leave curb ramps accessible, allow at least 6 feet for pedestrians to walk, and demonstrate proof of liability insurance, they can set up tables immediately after applying. Restaurants will only be contacted if the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the agency running the program, identifies an issue. However, restaurants need extra approvals from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control department in order to serve boozy libations at sidewalk tables.
Of course, few sidewalks in the city are wide enough for these kinds of setups, so many restaurants will probably look to convert parking spaces out front, which requires explicit approval from the city. Michael Azoulay, owner of Chouqet’s in Pacific Heights, got the parking space in front of his restaurant converted to a takeout waiting area last month, and today it’s set up with tables. Balboa Cafe in Cow Hollow, another one of the restaurants open for outdoor dining today, is waiting on approvals for a parklet out front.
Azoulay was happy to welcome back diners, but is still deeply concerned about his long term prospects. “It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t know if it will be enough to be honest. The cost of doing business in San Francisco is so high, with half the capacity and half the revenue, it’s hard to survive.”
Azoulay is hopeful about the potential of the Shared Spaces program, which allows for the possibility of converting travel lanes or entire streets into al-fresco dining areas, in coordination with SFMTA and local merchant associations.
“Maybe closure of streets would help,” he says. “But they have to act fast on that. Because every day it’s becoming more and more challenging to keep our doors open”