You know how eating in a hospital cafeteria is almost universally an unappetizing and unsettling experience? Well, get ready for the hopefully temporary future of bars and restaurants in California and beyond as some begin to reopen with makeshift plastic partitions and masked employees.
Reopening may be the only answer to digging out of the financial hole of the last two months for many Bay Area restaurants. But as some chefs who spoke to Eater yesterday were starting to say, adhering to the state's somewhat vague but still onerous-sounding pandemic reopening guidelines could make for a less-than-inviting experience for diners. Maybe we'll have to live with it for a year, or maybe some restaurants will just pivot to fast-casual and more takeout. In any event, some early examples of what life could look like in bars and restaurants are just... sad.
Kudos! Sheila Kelly, owner of Powell's Steamer Co. & Pub, stands behind makeshift barriers as she helps patrons at her restaurant in the El Dorado County town of Placerville, Calif. El Dorado County was one of first counties to win approval from the state to reopen. pic.twitter.com/qMJ64N7xet— pjupdown (@pjupdown) May 14, 2020
That's an AP photo, above, of Powell's Steamer Co. & Pub in Placerville, California, which just reopened today with these bizarre makeshift barriers around the drink-ordering station made of PVC pipe and disposable plastic sheeting.
As NPR reports, Powell's is one of many dine-in restaurants — and bars that serve food — that got to reopen Wednesday in 18 rural California counties where coronavirus cases have remained low. Sutter, Placer, Modoc, and Yuba counties have all jumped to the front of the line of this "expanded Phase 2" in California's four-phased reopening plan, while much of the Bay Area remains in the baby-steps early days of Phase 2 which involves reopening retail with curbside service. That is already beginning tomorrow in Sonoma County, and will start Monday in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties.
ABC 7 has just launched an interactive feature that illustrates, in photos, what various parts of life and commerce will look like as the reopening phases take place. And the photo in there of people dining in a restaurant with plexiglass partitions up around the tables is also sort of sad.
INTERACTIVE: The #coronavirus pandemic has changed our world forever. So what does life look like on the other side? We take a peek into the future across eight sectors of society. https://t.co/b2ilSTsHBi— ABC7 News (@abc7newsbayarea) May 14, 2020
Outdoor dining, especially under new rules still in the works that allow restaurants to take up more sidewalk, parking, and other public spaces, might be a little easier to deal with. And in addition to those guidelines being crafted in San Francisco, the Berkeley city council this week began mulling its own plans for outdoor dining options.
"I don’t care what the plan is," said Ryan Cole of the Hi Neighbor Restaurant Group (Trestle, Corridor, The Vault), speaking to Eater. "I just want you to give me a plan and give me two week’s notice." Cole noted that most of what was laid out in the state's draft guidelines for reopening restaurants was common practice is most nicer restaurants — though perhaps not all the sanitizing of doorknobs or non-reusable paper menus.
And Tommy Cleary, the chef-owner of the new, upscale Hina Yakitori, tells Eater that his tasting menu concept just may not work even when SF restaurants can allow diners back in. "I just don’t feel comfortable charging people $150 and having to dress like a surgeon and act like we are in a horror flick," he said, adding, "Fine dining and $300 tasting menus are probably done. The line cook will be king."
Horror flick indeed. The turning point in the horror movie will come if and when a particular restaurant — or, in Phase 3, a bar or nightclub — becomes a documented hotspot or the site of a super-spreading event.
That basically happened to a trio of gay nightclubs in Seoul last week after South Korea moved to reopen nightlife (though it's unclear if the clubs had government-sanctioned approval to be open). The three gay clubs took down names and phone numbers of patrons as they arrived to party on the night of May 1, and after a 29-year-old man who had been partying at the clubs turned up COVID-positive, the country's contact-tracing program set out to contact all 11,000 people who had signed in at the nightclubs, as CNN reports. And, given the repressive and homophobic culture that persists in South Korea, this event highlights the kind of privacy-invading nightmares that contact-tracing presents in a pandemic.
Reportedly, the contact-tracers sent texts out telling everyone in the vicinity of the clubs to go get coronavirus tests, but they were unable to reach about 2,000 of them. That likely meant that they gave false names or phone numbers when they checked in at the clubs.
"Korea is such a homophobic place, these clubs are really a haven for these people," said one anonymous 25-year-old who was one of the gay men out at the nightclubs when the outbreak took place. "I would hate to see them shut down permanently because of this virus or homophobia." He added to CNN that the night he was out was very tame, despite the sensational media reports that came out afterward. "Boys out dancing to K-pop, grabbing drinks, talking to old friends, really innocent stuff. It's frustrating that the media is treating them all like sex clubs."
Everyone should brace themselves for stuff like this to happen in the Bay Area too, even if there might not be the same sort of homophobia that comes with it.
By most accounts, we should be moving into Phase 3 of reopening sometime this summer, though no timeline has been set and it could be delayed by new outbreaks or upticks in COVID hospitalizations.
Crystal Watson of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security tells the Associated Press this week that it will be five to six weeks before we may start to see the impacts of reopening state and local economies, because that is how long it will take for outbreaks to take shape.