California restaurants await permission to resume in-person dining

California
Chairs on the bar as restaurants close in what would normally be a crowded lunch time scene at the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California on May 4, 2020. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Chairs on the bar as restaurants close in what would normally be a crowded lunch time scene at the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California on May 4, 2020. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

California restaurants waiting for permission to reopen to diners have been preparing for the “new normal” in the age of the coronavirus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected Tuesday to provide more details of what’s required before his plan to reopen California’s economy reaches restaurant dining rooms, shuttered since mid-March under a statewide order. The order is aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Many restaurants already are practicing safety procedures they anticipate will be required to reopen.

Raechel Kadoya, owner of Soichi Sushi in San Diego, says she spent about $3,000 for a new air purification system using ultraviolet light and filters. The restaurant also now has custom shield guards between the sushi bar patrons and the chef. The kitchen staff wear masks.

“We work in the food industry so safety, cleanliness, that’s top of the list,” she said. “We’re thinking on our own, without guidelines, about what we can do to make it safer.”

Other restaurants are doubling down on sanitizing seats, surfaces and doorknobs and removing tables to ensure social distancing.

Reopening restaurants is likely to be a disjointed process, with those in rural areas opening first, and eateries in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other urban areas that have been hot spots for infections remaining closed longer.

The California Restaurant Association has drafted recommendations that include limiting tables to family and household members but not to exceed 10 people. Salad bars, buffets and shared bread baskets would be out. Salt and pepper shakers could be replaced by bottles of hand sanitizer.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Duarte, Leon Avakian says he’d like to reopen by June — he only just broke even in April after the closure began to bite.

Avakin said he expects new safety guidelines to be in force for a year or more, or until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.

“I’m a pharmacist by training and I’ve worked in the health field for about 20 years,” he said. “I understand that these changes are necessary and thy are healthful, to take care of our elderly population, which is most at risk.”

Depending on their size, restaurateurs are hoping that they can retain 25% or 50% or more of their old seating capacity, making calculations about how many customers they need to survive.

“Our revenue is less than 20% of normal. We’re barely able to keep our head above water,” said Richard Yates, co-owner of Opal Restaurant & Bar in Santa Barbara.

But it’s not all about money, he said. Takeout customers can get lemongrass crusted fresh salmon or shredded phyllo-wrapped tiger prawn but they can’t get the dining experience “eating them in a little box at home,” Yates said.

“Being a full-service restaurant, it’s in our blood to have full contact with people,” he said. “We hope to provide nourishment for more than just hunger but for the soul as well … The idea is that it’s an enriching social experience to have dinner at a good restaurant.”

Restaurant reopenings have become symbolic of the thorny problems of trying to jump-start the economy in a state so populous and diverse. Under Newsom’s reopening plan, it could be weeks or even a month before restaurant dining rooms are allowed to reopen, depending on whether progress is made in reducing COVID-19 deaths and ramping up testing.

But Yuba and Sutter counties in Northern California, which have had few virus cases, already have defied the governor by allowing dine-in restaurants to reopen, along with hair salons and gyms.

And some hard-pressed restaurant owners have taken their own action. In Fresno, one who defied city orders and permitted customers Sunday was fined several thousand dollars and a customer was briefly detained after police said he scuffled with them.

More than two dozen California counties have asked for permission to loosen their stay-at-home orders beyond what the state allows, Newsom said Monday, promising a speedy review of their requests as jobs continue disappearing by the millions in a coronavirus-induced economic downturn.

Newsom said Monday more than 4.5 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, contributing to a projected $54.3 billion budget deficit. The state will allow counties to go beyond the state’s plan, but only if they meet strict standards that include no coronavirus-related deaths and no more than one confirmed case per 10,000 residents in the past two weeks.

Newsom also said his administration has discussed plans with 19 counties, with nine others scheduled. Some could have their plans approved by Tuesday. But it’s been difficult for some more populated counties to meet those state standards.

California has more than 68,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 2,700 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because of a shortage of testing.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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