Tuesday's announcement shutting down indoor dining in San Francisco did not come as a complete surprise to some chefs — and it confirmed fears that many had about jumping on the bandwagon and rehiring staff when indoor dining first began at limited capacity six weeks ago.
Now, as frigid fall nights are suddenly upon us and outdoor eating has suddenly become a lot less appealing, restaurants are facing yet another financial nightmare that just a few weeks ago they thought they might be able to avert. Mayor London Breed and Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax felt optimistic enough about the city's COVID metrics on October 20 to announce that an expansion to 50% capacity could be coming by Election Day. But just as quickly as those hopes were raised across the local restaurant industry, they were dashed when Breed and Colfax reversed themselves ten days later, noting a rise in cases. Fast-forward another ten days, and they decided along with Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón that all indoor dining must stop for an indefinite period of time.
"“This rollback will be extremely tough for our restaurants and bars who are already struggling to make ends meet, but we must work together to contain this virus, trust the science before us, and once again flatten this curve," said Joaquín Torres, Director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, in a statement Tuesday. "Our economy and the thousands of employees that need and depend on this work rests with each of us to do our part." Torres noted that the city had made some funds available in the form of small-business loans and grants for parklet construction, and it is waiving some taxes and fees.
Eater spoke with a number of chefs and restaurant owners who expressed a range of emotions about the announcement. Longtime SF restaurateur George Chen, who owns China Live and its upstairs fine-dining counterpart Eight Tables, said, "We were just getting back on our feet." Chen now has to close Eight Tables entirely after reopening it just weeks ago when indoor dining was allowed.
Josef Betz, the owner of The House of Prime Rib — which booked up all of its available tables through the holidays when Betz announced its reopening — tells Eater that the city's decision is "overkill," and one made by people who never had to make a payroll.
One question that restaurant owners will be asking more loudly in the coming weeks as they struggle to make ends meet is whether the city has specific evidence of the dangers of limited-capacity indoor dining, when it comes to virus spread.
"We understand the rate of cases increasing (the slope of the curve) is steeper than our last wave in the summer, and that this caused real concerns by Dr. Aragon and Dr. Colfax as to the possibility that our healthcare system could easily become overwhelmed," said the Golden Gate Restaurant Association in a statement. "While there seems to be no reported causal link between dining inside in San Francisco restaurants and the increased San Francisco case numbers, we continue to remind our members to follow all COVID-19 safe practices and guidelines."
Benu chef Corey Lee expressed frustration at the decision after just reopening his Michelin three-star dining room several weeks ago. In a statement to Eater, Lee says, "I think the city failed us by not doing a better job monitoring the various businesses that have been allowed to reopen. The fact is some restaurants are operating even more safely than what’s required by the local guidelines, and they should be allowed to operate in some capacity. Others are following them very loosely and should be penalized or closed down."
Not all restaurateurs are openly angry, and some say they half expected this and they're taking it in stride.
John's Grill owner John Konstin Jr. tells the Chronicle that he was already looking into weather-proofing his outdoor dining area, and he looks forward to welcoming guests back indoors when it's allowed.
Stuart Brioza, chef-owner of State Bird Provisions, The Progress, and the new Anchovy Bar, tells Eater, "Hopeless optimism has been my mantra. We’ve got to hold tight and stay positive. Otherwise, what am I going to do? I can’t work from home. And neither can my staff."
He supports the city's decision, and says he'll try to make it work with the outdoor setups he has — likely expanding to seven days a week from five in order to bring in more revenue.
"If that’s what it takes to get ahead of [the virus], then we’re all in," Brioza says.
Photo of Benu via OpenTable