SAN FRANCISCO—San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that outdoor dining can resume on January 28 during a weekly COVID press conference two days earlier. Additionally, other outdoor activities—at zoos, museums, and gyms—may resume as well. Indoor funerals may take place with up to 12 people and indoor personal services such as hair salons may reopen with strict guidelines. 

The curfew orders, which went into effect on December 6, 2020, were viewed as draconian and harmful to the restaurant industry. They exacerbated economic woes in the view of restaurant managers and employees, forcing them to rely only on takeout and delivery. “These are businesses that have not been able to open their doors or have been severely limited in the services they can provide,” said the Mayor of San Francisco two weeks before in an earlier press conference.

Mayor Breed said such measures were appropriate, citing the ICU capacity. “Our ICU capacity is stable at about 26%. The good news is that we are in a better place than we were in a long time. Outdoor dining can resume. Personal services can resume as long as you wear a mask.” 

Regarding the lifting of the stay-at-home order by California Governor Gavin Newsom, and mentioning policies that restaurant employees were critical of, she responded:

“We got here because we saw the numbers begin to creep up again aggressively, and we shut down early because we were concerned with what this would do to our ICU capacity in the city. If we had done nothing, at this time at the end of January, we would be out of ICU beds.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during weekly COVID press conference on January 25, 2021.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco restaurants have lost 40%-90% of profits on a weekly basis. The ban on outdoor dining was a measure viewed as nonsensical and draconian by business owners and employees who spoke with the San Francisco News.

The owner of Ino Vino, an Italian restaurant located in Cole Valley, Francesco, said his already impacted business fared worse during the ban on outdoor dining. When asked about what percentage of weekly sales Ino Vino lost compared to before the pandemic, he answered: “We’re doing 25%. The decision of locking down made it even worse.”

Interior of Ino Vino

When asked whether he thought the mid-December lockdown orders that banned outdoor dining were unfair he said, “I totally do.” Explaining himself, he said:

“I’m not a scientist. There are people getting into the pressurized chamber known as the airplane, one of the most dangerous things to get into during a pandemic. They have food, and we cannot dine outside? What the heck is that? The policies are absurd, based out of nothing.”

Francesco went on to make analogies of other illnesses killing tens of thousands every year:

“Yes. There is a pandemic, a serious threat. There are things going on in the world, not just one thing. 70,000 people die every year from diabetes. For the past 60 years, 54 million people died. This one has reached a ridiculous way of putting policies, as well as power grab by local officials.”

He questioned the application of science to government health orders. “Again, my opinion. We have a 99.7% survival rate. I think it is beyond absurd. I understand that there is a virus. I understand that it is dangerous, but why are streets deserted and why are restaurants closed? Where is the science? Where is the truth and where is the lie?”

Estavan Cortez, a server at the wood-fired oven pizzeria, Il Casaro Pizzeria, which lost 60 to 83 percent of its business during the COVID pandemic, based in the North Beach neighborhood, expressed opposition to the curfew order’s measures.

Interior of Il Casaro Pizzeria. Photo courtesy of Monica C/Yelp.

Cortez said during a phone interview on Thursday, December 10, that the new curfew orders that banned both indoor and outdoor business make no sense. “It doesn’t make any sense. We can do a lot of things. For example, we are free to go outside. Parks are full of people. Beaches are full of people. Anywhere you go there are a bunch of people. To force essential businesses to close when they are doing things outside makes no sense.”

Giuseppe Vivacqua, manager of Spiazzo Ristorante, which lost 75 percent of its weekly profits during COVID, also called the measures excessive. “I think they are excessive. I don’t understand why they banned outdoor dining.”

Exterior of Spiazzo Restaurant

Open 77 hours a week, Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Spiazzo serves dishes including veal scaloppine topped with prosciutto, fontina cheese, fresh sage in marsala sauce, and Zupe Di Pesce, a seafood platter consisting of sauteed clams, small shrimp, calamari, scallops and generous pieces of seasonal fish in a light tomato broth served with spaghetti and garlic crostini.

Sunny Chow, the manager of Deccan House, an Indian cuisine-inspired restaurant that lost 50 percent of its pre-COVID weekly profits, expressed disagreement with the curfew orders, and pointed out that the money and effort put into building the outdoor seating area were wasted. “It sucks. There is no proof that the new cases came as a result of outdoor dining. We spent so much money on building a patio. $5,000. It took about seven to ten days. We had a contractor do it.”

Outdoor patio of Deccan House
Deccan House exterior

Nopalito, an Mexican restaurant located to the east of Pan Handle Park on 360 Broderick, lost close to 50 percent of its pre-pandemic sales according to manager Josh Dewalt. “Our average ticket numbers are well done for the new curfew and shelter-in-place orders as opposed to the outdoor dining only. For a normal month, we had an average of 250 ticket numbers or guests groups on a normal Friday. The deliveries are doing well, but it definitely feels like half of what we had been doing in terms of sales last February or January.”

Exterior of Nopalito restaurant

Describing cuts in hours considering the decline in business and the less demand for work, Dewalt said: “We have been doing a little bit to a fair amount of cutting. It has been a hand full of hours across the board, but not like cutting someone in half. We do have a good amount of full-time workers with people working five days a week. We have gone through schedules and a handful of different people have gone down from 8-hour work days to the 6 or so range? There have been some cuts but it is relative to how bad the situation is with COVID.”

Takeout orders ready to go at Nopalito.

Nopalito, which serves items such as carnitas, the quesadilla roja, and mole poblano, since November, 2020, has been open 40 hours a week, Tuesday through Friday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

Sharon Ardiana, chef owner of Ragazza, an Italian restaurant featuring Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizzas and casual Italian pasta, said that sales have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. “Right now we are probably doing close to 40%-50% of our normal sales. We had the heated patio gazebo for a bit to do outdoor dining, but that is closed until the new year and beyond more than likely,” said Ardiana.

Exterior of Ragazza

Ardiana indicated she was okay with the ban on outdoor dining, considering factors such as the nearly zero to zero capacity in ICU beds in cities and counties across California, and the difficulties of enforcing wearing masks at the outdoor seating areas to minimize the spread of COVID while maintaining a welcoming demeanor. 

“Right now, with there being zero capacity at hospitals and a COVID surge happening, I am okay with no outdoor dining,” she said. Considering that the lives of customers and staff are at stake, in her view, it was a “no brainer” for Ragazza to abide by the measures and not object. “The success of my restaurant versus someone’s health or life is really a no brainer for me and I am happy to keep all of my staff in a more safe and secure environment.” 

“I know that it is extremely hard for everyone with outdoor dining closed, but I have to say, many people still do not understand the protocols for outside dining and that makes it extremely uncomfortable having to tell people what to do and to keep their masks on unless they are actually eating. It’s hard to be the mask police and also emit that welcoming sense of hospitality at the same time when you have a heightened alertness of all the ways the virus can be transmitted!”

Concerning the topic of outdoor patios being unused, Ragazzo manager Sharon Ardiana mentioned during her interview that patios could cost other managers anywhere between $3,000 to $20,000. Although she long built her patio before the pandemic and already received satisfactory “return on investment” profits, she said she understood why other restaurants wanted to reopen outdoor dining before the ban was lifted, wanting to receive their own return on investment profits. 

“We have been open for 10 years and the gazebo was built like a year later to be able to use the patio, which would get really cold due to the lush garden. It basically paid for itself in 1 year, so that is something that I don’t have to worry about. I think for other people building parklets, it varies from a few thousand up to $20,000, which is probably why they really want to open back up to at least see a small return of investment.”

Concerned over restaurant closures during the economic fallout during COVID, in the December of 2020, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, “We need the RESTAURANTS Act to help them during this unprecedented circumstance.” 

According to the Washington Post, the Restaurants Act would provide $120 billion to help restaurants and bars with fewer than 20 locations. The website advocated for this emergency relief legislation.

“Restaurants are community cornerstones,” the narrator for the introductory video on the website. “COVID closures have tested our strength. Over 8 million jobs have been lost, and in early July, nearly 100,000 restaurants have shut down because of new state closures.” The restaurant industry is expected to lose $240 billion this year.

“Introducing Restaurants Act” video still.

“Even before this most recent surge, restaurants had gone months without revenue. They need to survive and keep their staff employed,” the Mayor of San Francisco stated. 

Some Twitter users criticized the mayor by telling her to allow restaurants to resume services, for under those curfew orders before the day she announced their lifting with her tone of optimism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States food services and drinking places industry saw a decrease in employment of 372,000 in December 2020, and the unemployment rate for industries classified under “leisure and hospitality” was 16.7 percent. 

Mayor Breed called restaurants small businesses that make the city “special,” and announced a $62 million relief plan to aid them as well as other businesses that qualify on January 12. The aid comes in the form of direct grants and low-interest loans. The COVID relief program was announced about a month after San Francisco fell back under the purple (substantial) tier, when further restrictions went into effect. 

The $62 million COVID relief plan for small businesses includes the $12.4 million SF Relief Grant, which will provide immediate relief to stabilize small businesses operations by offering grants of $5,000 to $20,000, based on the number of employees that each employer had in February 2020. The plan is to provide $50 million in low-interest and zero-interest loans of up to $250,000 each to businesses earning $2.5 million or more in revenue. 

Expressing optimism for the future of small businesses in San Francisco, and justifying previous policies that restaurant owners and employees disagreed with, Mayor Breed assured San Francisco residents that they worked and that they must continue to respond accordingly to the COVID pandemic:

“Because we acted quickly, and because you followed the healthcare orders that were provided by the Department of Public Health, we did so early even before the state required us to do so. Because we did that in San Francisco, we are in a better place. This is good news, but there is still work to be done. We have to just use common sense and accept that we have to live with this for some time.”