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San Francisco re-shuts dining rooms, furthering a nationwide rollback for restaurants

Other areas are imposing curfews and facing off with restaurateurs in court as COVID counts soar.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants in San Francisco will be required to re-shut their dining rooms as of 11:59 Friday night in another instance of a government reinstating service restrictions to slow the nation’s lightspeed spread of coronavirus.

With new cases of COVID-19 setting records virtually every day, state and local governments are hoping to find a brake that’s less damaging to the industry than a full-fledged suspension of dine-in service. Minnesota, New Jersey and Montgomery County, Md., for instance, have all imposed a curfew on restaurant service of 10 p.m., following Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Mexico. New York initially set a curfew of midnight for dine-in service, but adjusted the time on Wednesday to 10 p.m. for restaurants with a liquor license and all bars. 

If that and limitations on other businesses fail to flatten a spike in coronavirus infections, the state will "turn the valve more, and part of that would be reducing the number of people in indoor dining," Cuomo said.

Jurisdictions such as Chicago and El Paso, Texas, similarly imposed curfews, but the efforts failed to bring infection rates below the thresholds targeted by local officials. Those markets, along with the rest of Illinois, have since suspended indoor table service.

Curfew advocates believe a required closing time will discourage patrons from lingering at their tables or hopping from party to party to socialize. A new study from Stanford University found that restaurants and cafes become “super spreader” contamination sites if they don’t discourage patrons from congregating for extended purposes.  Similarly, Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker cited restaurants as the most frequent points of contamination within his states.

Simultaneous with the flurry of activity in state, city and county capitals, courts are actively sorting out what governments can or cannot require restaurants to do without legislated authority. A lawsuit filed in Maricopa County, Ariz.,by a group of tavern operators sought to quash an executive order from their governor, former restaurateur Doug Ducey, that shut down all bars in the state. Restaurants, including those with bar service, were allowed to remain open.

A county-court judge ruled that Ducey had the authority to shut drinking establishments but lacked the constitutional power to okay the sale of alcoholic beverages by restaurants for takeout and delivery, as he did by directive early in the pandemic. That sales-generation option was closed to restaurants throughout the state as of Monday.

New Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled last week that Gov. Michelle Grisham had the authority to enforce the limit she set on indoor dining of 25%.  The plaintiffs, who included the New Mexico Restaurant Association, had argued that the Democrat did now have the constitutional power to impose fines of up to $5,000 per day for non-compliance.

San Francisco had been one of the industry’s last major urban markets to permit the reopening of dining rooms. Eating places there were allowed to resume indoor dining service on Sept. 30. Initially, civic leaders indicated that they would raise the cap almost immediately to 50%, but they reversed themselves as new coronavirus cases spiked in the area. New cases have increased within the city by 250% since Oct. 2, according to the office of Mayor London Breed.

Breed and Director of Health Grant Colfax announced their decision on Tuesday to re-close dining rooms. Takeout, delivery and outdoor dining will be allowed to continue after midnight on Friday.

The news was not welcomed by the local restaurant community. “With winter on the way, limited indoor dining represented the only real hope for many restaurants to survive the next three months,” the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a local trade group, said in a statement. “As we have said before, the majority of restaurants simply cannot make it financially on takeout alone. With the uncertainty around further federal support, San Francisco restaurants, their employees, and their families will suffer greatly.”

Simultaneous with the announcement of dine-in service being suspended, San Francisco announced several new aid programs to help local restaurants survive the winter. Those measures include a waiver of some taxes and fees, estimated to save small businesses $2.5 million in total; $500,000 in total to assist restaurants in setting up outdoor dining spaces; $500,000 in grants to purchase equipment and reconfigure dining areas to keep onsite parties at least six feet apart; and $500,000 in loans to help small-business pay rent and other operating expenses.

“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,” Joaquín Torres, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said in a statement. “Our economy and the thousands of employees that need and depend on this work rests with each of us to do our part.”

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