DANVILLE — In one of the Bay Area’s most dramatic examples of pandemic protest to date, 12 Danville restaurants are defying a county health order to stop outdoor dining and are remaining open.
Contra Costa County last week ordered restaurants to shut down outdoor dining because of the rising cases of COVID-19, ahead of a statewide order that would require counties to do the same based on hospital bed ICU availability dropping below 15%. Contra Costa County, along with five other Bay Area counties, agreed to get a head start on the shutdown.
But that decision irked some restaurant owners who say they’re struggling even with outdoor dining; allowing only take-out or delivery orders won’t bring in enough for them to stay afloat, they say.
“We can’t survive on takeout. … It’s about 10% of our business. We can’t come back; we can’t pay our rent, our employees, who in turn can’t pay their rent,” said Amy Sidhom, co-owner of Crumbs restaurant on Railroad Avenue.
She said that outdoor dining is not any less safe than other outdoor functions that are allowed, and even indoor ones, such as grocery store shopping. Other retail stores are allowed to be open at reduced capacity.
“It feels like an arbitrary decision,” she said.
Some experts agree.
San Mateo County did not go along with the other counties and refused to preemptively issue a stay-at-home order, saying the data did not support the closures. A UCSF medical professor of infectious diseases told this news organization that there’s no evidence published by the state or counties that outdoor dining with safety measures — such as two sides open for cross ventilation, masks worn at all times by staff and by customers when not eating, small tables spread apart and hand hygiene — are fueling spread.
“Indoor dining is likely more risky,” Dr. Monica Gandhi said, “and closed some time back when the surge started happening.”
Contra Costa County has recorded a total of 28,487 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic begain, with 96 new cases reported Thursday; 19% of its ICU beds were available.
Sidhom and other restaurant owners came together in a united front to take a stand against the imposed health order, and are ready to pay fines if they have to. Some patrons have even offered to help pay the fines for the restaurants, or start an online fundraiser. Fines start at $250 for a first offense of the order, $500 for a second and $1,000 for each additional fine.
Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen, whose district includes Danville, said while she’s sympathetic to the restaurants and small businesses that are struggling, she is disappointed that these restaurants chose to defy the health order.
“It’s not worth it. Lives are at stake,” Andersen said in an interview.
“The reality is, we are in a real crisis point in the pandemic. Since Nov. 1, hospitalizations have quadruped,” she said. “We have to limit interaction, to slow down the spread and maintain limited capacity at Bay Area hospitals.”
She urged people to patronize restaurants in other ways: getting take-out or gift cards.
On Tuesday, Contra Costa County supervisors will discuss a potential increase in fines for such violations, but Andersen said she is not for raising the fines just yet. She wants to continue education efforts first.
“We don’t mean harm; we are following the guidelines to the tee,” said Sidhom, referring to past CDC requirements for outdoor dining. “We are not getting rich off this; we are just trying to pay our bills and keep our doors open.”
She and others restaurant owners are in the process of considering legal action, and filing a complaint against the county.
Corey Katz, owner of Bar Cava in Martinez, had his attorney file a motion Thursday morning against Contra Costa County challenging the new health order. He argues that the county has no proof with any data to justify shutting down outdoor dining any earlier than the state’s requirements.
“They decided to close us without data. There’s no scientific evidence that we’re the cause in the rise of COVID-19,” Katz said in an interview. “You’re closing because you don’t want people outside: That’s not an excuse, it’s control.”
He wants food establishments to be considered “essential” as they are providing food to customers.
Katz said he’s “livid” about the regulations, but is choosing to follow the county’s health rules, mostly for fear that he could lose his liquor license from the state Alcohol and Beverage Control or face hefty fines.
He noted that there are exceptions to the rules on outdoor gatherings; for example, outdoor religious services are allowed. He joked to NBC Bay Area that he would open the “French Laundry Temple,” a glib reference to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s dinner party at the Napa County exclusive eatery with people outside his household, followed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s attendance at a dinner there as well.
Staff writer John Woolfolk contributed to this story.