SF Restaurants’ Reopening Stalled by Drinking Problem

San Francisco is scrambling to get state approval for open-air alcohol consumption before outdoor bars reopen on Monday.

While outdoor table service has been permitted in San Francisco since June 12, many restaurants are still unable to legally serve alcoholic beverages to diners thanks to a mismatch between city and state regulations.

Although restaurants with established patios can serve booze to patrons at outdoor tables, those taking advantage of the city’s Shared Spaces program — which allows business to take over sidewalk and parking space — cannot. Without being able to serve their most lucrative menu item, some restaurants have decided not to use their approved outdoor Shared Spaces permit, and others have decided to serve alcohol in these spaces anyhow, at the risk of incurring fines. 

Until the city and county of San Francisco receives state approval to accelerate its reopening process, the state’s department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) cannot issue temporary permits to restaurants and bars wishing to serve alcohol outdoors. The city is hoping that this process will be resolved in time for outdoor bars to begin service on Monday. 

“The ABC thing has been very frustrating for a lot of people,” says Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and owner of Rose’s Café and Terzo in Cow Hollow. “Either people lost revenue, or they took a risk and served alcohol anyways,” she says, adding that she hasn’t heard of any restaurant getting caught for illegally serving alcohol outdoors.  

This issue was first reported by Mission Local on June 16, the same day the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to submit a request for a County Variance Attestation to the California Department of Public Health. Since then, fixing the problem has been slow going.  

Last Friday, the city submitted a letter of intent to apply for the variance, according to Andy Lynch, press director for Mayor London Breed. That letter began a process that will culminate in a formal variance application, which Lynch hopes will be approved by the end of the week. San Francisco is one of just four of California’s 58 counties that have not yet been approved for a variance to the state-level COVID reopening plan. 

Meanwhile, restaurants are waiting. As of Tuesday morning, ABC had received 51 applications to serve alcohol outdoors from San Francisco restaurants, according to spokesperson John Carr. ABC cannot approve those applications until the city is approved for accelerated reopening. 

Fog City and Balboa Cafe previously told SF Weekly that they had applied for Shared Spaces permits. While those permits were approved, neither restaurant chose to set up these additional tables due to their inability to serve alcohol. (Thanks to their existing, pre-COVID outdoor dining permits, both restaurants are still serving food and alcohol to patrons at their established patios, but not in their post-COVID Shared Spaces. Other restaurants are serving food and alcohol to-go.) 

“The opportunity to expand our footprint outdoors is incredibly important to our business,” said Hilary Newsom, owner of Balboa Cafe. “We’re anxious to actually utilize it.” 

The Shared Spaces program has proven very popular. More than 500 restaurants, stores, and other establishments have applied to expand their footprint into sidewalk or parking space so far, according to city data. Restaurants, in particular, see the program as a major lifeline for their businesses. 

Even when indoor dining is approved, Thomas anticipates that her restaurants will only be able to operate at 35 percent capacity. “That’s why we really, really need to take advantage of these outdoor spaces,” she says.

So far, though, bureaucracy has made that difficult. “I honestly don’t think there was any mal intent there,” Thomas says of the city not getting its variance approved in a timely manner. “We’re doing things we’ve never done before. It’s like we’re trying to fly when we can barely crawl.”

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