Restaurants across San Diego are preparing to open for dine-in service as soon as they get the go-ahead from Gov. Gavin Newsom. But dining out in the coronavirus era will look very different with servers wearing masks, tables spread apart or empty and maybe even plexiglass between bar stools.
On Monday, Newsom said counties could soon get state approval to allow restaurants to reopen. Last week, the state published a list of guidelines for restaurants as they get ready to invite diners back.
At Raglan Public House in Ocean Beach on Monday, one of the owners, PJ Lamont, was furiously getting ready. It is one of five New Zealand-themed restaurants he co-owns and operates in San Diego.
“Tables will be six feet apart, bar seating we’re probably not going to be able to do period,” he said as he showed the new restaurant layout he’s preparing. “That’s one of the pending items right now.”
At first, he planned to sanitize all menus and silverware between customers – but after the state guidelines were published last week, he realized that was a non-starter.
The restaurants have been open for takeout since March, when the stay-at-home orders were first implemented. And because social distancing only allows room for a few patrons to dine in, Lamont expects takeout to continue to be the majority of his business in the coming months.
“When we are going to be open for dine-in, it’s going to be about 30% is what we’re anticipating, so going to to-go business is really a giant shift for us,” he said. “We’ve always done it in the past, but now it’s going to be on the forefront. So we want to make it as much of a gift as possible as opposed to just food in a bag.”
They’re also making preparations for employees.
“For staff, we do face coverings, gloves and temp checks when they come in,” he said. “Anything over 100 (degrees) and they go home.”
Public health vs. privacy
But Lamont said he’s not ready at this point to require temperature checks for customers, or to collect their contact information so they can be reached if COVID-19 cases are traced back to the restaurant. Such measures have become the norm in other places around the world – including South Korea and Hong Kong.
Last week, Washington State’s governor announced that restaurants will have to keep logs of customer phone numbers and email addresses as part of a statewide contact tracing program.
As of now, that’s not part of California’s guidelines for restaurants to reopen. Lamont said he’d do it if the state requires it, though he’d rather not.
“It’s one of those things, once you give up one more little piece of freedom, are they always going to be doing that?” he said. “I personally don’t want to be the one holding all that information of other people.”
Yet, a log of restaurant customers would be helpful to quickly stop transmission, said Eyal Oren, an epidemiologist at San Diego State who used to run the contact tracing program for King County in Washington State.
“We know that highly effective contact tracing and case isolation is paramount to controlling this kind of outbreak,” he said. “And the probability of effective control decreases as you have a longer delay in someone being symptomatic to their being isolated to people around them are not quickly found, traced,” he said.
Still, he said, the privacy concerns would be difficult for Americans.
At Stone Brewing, plans are also underway for reopening. Gregg Frazer, the vice president of hospitality, said the company will comply with whatever state and local mandates are implemented. However, Stone has no plans to collect customers’ contact information unless it’s a requirement.
“You do get into some privacy issues when you start keeping track of who’s coming in the doors,” he said. “So I don’t think we’ll go above and beyond, because we want to ensure we’re not breaking any rules in the privacy piece.”
Stone has developed detailed plans for its spacious restaurants in Liberty Station and Escondido, including spacing out tables and posting marks every six feet in walkways to ensure proper social distancing—with Stone branding, of course.
A sign on the path at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido shows where to stand to be six feet apart, May 5, 2020.
“In Escondido, even at 50% that’s north of 600 people, and at Liberty Station that’s north of 1,000 people, we have huge footprints,” Frazer said. “So we can do 50% capacity and have a significant amount of room for social distancing.”
They’re also using reservations to pre-order some meals and are planning to use an app called GoTab, which allows customers to order without going to the bar or seeing a server.
Most restaurants don’t benefit from Stone’s spacious grounds, which means less room inside for seating customers. To help with this lack of space, some advocates are proposing shutting down streets to traffic to allow restaurants to seat more customers outdoors.
Regardless, PJ Lamont is preparing to do the best he can with the space inside his five restaurants. At Dunedin in North Park, he has a plan to keep a good atmosphere even with social distancing.
“Instead of removing tables and spacing them far apart, we’re just going to fill up the other tables with giant stuffed animals,” he said.