When five Bay Area counties issued a new stay-at-home mandate earlier this week, Yash Sinha already had a standing date with a friend for dinner.
Instead of canceling, Sinha, who lives in Cupertino, drove 20 minutes north to a restaurant in Menlo Park where they could still sit back and enjoy the splendor of being served a freshly cooked meal on an outdoor patio.
“It’s really bizarre to me that San Mateo is different from all the other counties,” Sinha said. “For me, it was a minor inconvenience for me to drive 20 minutes north, but there are real businesses and working-class people (in other parts of the Bay Area) who are suffering.”
Attempting to escape the slew of new restrictions that hit most of the region this week, some Bay Area residents are traveling to the land of the free — San Mateo County — to dine outside, get their hair done and hang onto a small semblance of normalcy that they grew accustomed to the past several months.
The trend, however, is deeply concerning public health officials and irking businesses that sit on the edge of the county as they watch potential revenue flow elsewhere.
“We are in a public health crisis with alarming rates of COVID-19 transmission,” said San Mateo County Manager Mike Callagy. “While we absolutely support our local businesses serving our local community, we do not want non-essential travel and non-essential activities such as crossing counties for an outdoor restaurant or salon. This is the time to stay close to home.”
When Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco and Marin counties earlier this week announced that they were moving quicker than the state mandate and starting the governor’s latest coronavirus restrictions, one Bay Area county was noticeably missing. In his explanation for not acting in concert with the other Bay Area counties, San Mateo County health officer Scott Marrow told residents that “the power and authority to control this pandemic lies primarily in your hands, not mine.”
Marrow’s position this time around marks a stark difference from his strict stance at the beginning of the pandemic, when he went beyond the Bay Area order and prohibited residents from going outside a 5-mile radius of their household to exercise.
The trigger to the state’s new stay-at-home order is when intensive care units in a given region fall below 15% availability. As of Friday, just 17.8% of ICU beds in the Bay Area region were open Thursday, indicating that San Mateo will likely soon be forced to implement the new restrictions as well.
The order requires that a wide range of businesses and services, including barbershops, hair and nail salons and outdoor dining, cease operations. But as for now, in San Mateo County, that’s not the case.
Nowhere is that divide more apparent than on the San Mateo/Santa Clara County border, where less than a mile can mean a world of difference.
In Menlo Park on Thursday, Santa Cruz Avenue bustled with the same level of activity that’s been common over the past few months as lunchgoers filled up outdoor dining patios and went on with their lives as usual despite the latest coronavirus surge. But just down El Camino Real, downtown Palo Alto looked more like a ghost town, with many of the same make-shift dining spaces either empty or gone now.
Megan Kawkab, the owner of The Patio restaurant in Palo Alto, recently poured tens of thousands of dollars into covering the business’ new parklet, setting up televisions in a newly-added parking lot seating area and increasing safety protocols to minimize the risk for outdoor diners.
But this week, due to the new order in Santa Clara County, she was forced to revert to take-out only and lay off about three-quarters of her staff.
“It’s definitely been heartbreaking to have to tell more than 20 employees they don’t have a job just weeks before Christmas,” she said. “Especially when three blocks away in San Mateo County they don’t have this.”
Kawkab lives in San Mateo County and says each day she sees a heavy stream of cars headed north into Menlo Park for dinner. “Part of me was like ‘Can we secede from the county? Can Palo Alto just join San Mateo?’ ” she said.
Taking advantage of the less stringent rules in San Mateo County on Thursday, Gregg Williams, of Sunnyvale, and Anne Santiago, of Alameda, were enjoying lunch outside at the Menlo Cafe.
Williams, who owns a small hearing aid business in Palo Alto, said he’s likely to continue crossing San Francisquito Creek — which forms the border between Santa Clara and San Mateo counties — for lunch when he’s tired of getting take-out.
“It’s odd to put restrictions on outdoor dining,” he said. “Sunnyvale had all these outdoor patio spaces too, and now they’re all gone. It’s already so hard for small businesses, what is that going to do?”
For Santiago, the trip away from Alameda County and its restrictions was necessary.
“People are so pent up and frustrated at home,” she said. “You have to get out and enjoy. It makes me wish I lived here. It’s nice to get a little freedom, and it’s good to help these restaurants that are struggling. Keep them open or they might shut down.”
Not everyone, however, is embracing the out-of-town visitors.
David Klemish, the owner of the Hair Mill in Menlo Park, said he has started asking new clients that call to make an appointment where they live. Earlier this week, he turned away someone who told him that he came down from Marin County for the day and was looking to get a hair cut.
“It’s the people that come into town that bring the virus in,” Klemish said. “Here in Menlo Park, we’re pretty safe. I used to see someone every 30 minutes, now I see one every hour. Business is cut in half, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”