As restaurants in San Francisco and other major cities look toward reopening sometime in the next few months, one thing is for certain: Nothing about the experience will look much like it did before.
We will likely be getting used to our servers speaking to us through masks and picking up our plates with rubber-gloved hands, for instance. Proposals coming out of the Restaurant Association this week include the jettisoning of salt and pepper shakers (many SF chefs did away with these years ago, because they know how to season your food), and the banning of salad bars. There will be mandatory temperature checks and virus testing for staff, as well as new mandatory hand-washing schedules. Things are going to feel more clinical than cozy for a while, but we will have to get used to it and know that maybe a year from now everything will be "normal" again, with just a tinge more hypochondria and germophobia.
Celebrity Chef Tom Colicchio tells the New Yorker he's most concerned about what happens in that year, with the economy in shambles and business likely to be down for restaurants across the spectrum even after they reopen.
"My concern isn’t actually getting open," Colicchio says. "My concern is, once you’re open, how do you last for a year? So many restaurants will open, and then in six months they’ll close and they won’t open again. Just like there could be a whole second wave of the illness, there’s going to a whole second wave of closures."
Colicchio sees fine examples at the high end of the restaurant market where some staff have been able to come back to do community feeding — like meals for healthcare workers — as well as takeout or meal kits. (Here in SF, Michelin-starred places like Saison, Atelier Crenn and Benu have opened up their kitchens to sell barbecue, vegetarian meal kits, and Korean takeout, respectively.) The acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York has turned into a "food processing" operation, keeping their farmers in business by packaging meal kits with simple roast chickens and seasonal vegetables.
And he cautions restaurateurs from rushing to reopen. "The question is: when can the public feel safe going to a restaurant?" Colicchio says. "I don’t think it’s going to happen in Georgia or Texas just because the governor says, 'Open up!' What’s going to happen is, if they become hot spots [for the virus] again, because they’re open, that’s going to really be bad for them."
But when this Phase 2 of California's reopening segues into a Phase 3 when dine-in restaurants can reopen — Governor Gavin Newsom suggested Thursday that for some counties with very low virus case counts, this could occur in Phase 2 — restaurants are going to be dealing both with nervous, reluctant staffs and nervous, reluctant clientele.
Already we have reports of restaurants not being able to rehire staff because unemployment is paying them more. And mass COVID-19 testing in the Mission last week confirmed what many feared, that the vast majority of those getting infected right now are essential workers who are leaving their houses every day.
When restaurants do reopen, and do get some of their staff back, essential workers in healthcare may be their best customers — because as this explainer detailed, these will be the members of the population most likely to be receiving regular COVID testing, and therefore the lowest risk for being in public and spreading the virus.
The Restaurant Association is suggesting that tables be limited to 10 people or fewer, and parties should consist only of families and people sharing households — but this seems like a difficult rule to enforce. Also, tables will of course have to be spaced further apart, forcing restaurants into unsustainable positions in many cases, as Colicchio says — with half the tables, that's half the revenue.
Which leads to an idea floated by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association this week: Let restaurants in San Francisco take over street-parking spaces, alleys, sidewalks, and public plazas to add more table capacity when they reopen. People are likely to be more comfortable dining outdoors because of the danger of indoor transmission of the coronavirus, so this could be a very good solution — at least for restaurants that don't live on super-busy streets. And lots of places already have parklets — this would just be a massive expansion of that idea.
As the Chronicle reports, several SF supervisors are already getting behind this proposal, and it would be a sort of extension of the slow-streets initiatives that have been put in place in SF and Oakland to create more space for outdoor exercise.
"I think we can take that same model and turn it into a restaurant economic recovery package," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin.
The Golden Gate Restaurant Association is asking SF leaders to allow restaurants to temporarily expand outdoors as shelter-in-place lifts. https://t.co/pL4w4nSflE— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) May 7, 2020
"There’s a range of things that the city should be exploring doing for restaurants as we reopen," says Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, speaking to the Chronicle. "Trying to activate public space to allow for social distancing makes a ton of sense."
If only we could legislate some warmer weather in SF to keep outdoor dining viable in the summer.
Photo: SF Better Streets