May 12, 2020 – Like so much of human existence, Covid-19 has changed the dining industry profoundly and, most likely, permanently.
While no one can anticipate exactly what that will taste like in coming months and years, today new state guidelines were published for dine-in restaurants hoping to reopen that shed some light on the immediate future.
As part of his daily noon press conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom—himself a veteran of the restaurant world—introduced additional modifications for shelter in place Phase 2 allowing for some reopenings that go beyond restaurants and include offices (with proper procedures) and malls (for pickup only). He reserved the right to re-tighten restrictions with any signs of rising rates.
“I want to emphasize the fluidity of the situation,” he said. “We’ll be making adjustments and modifications on a regular basis. The idea is to get us through Phase 2 so we can get to Phase 3. We’re not there yet.”
He noted 77 Californians lost to COVID-19 in the last 24 hours after adding this: “You’ve gotten us to this point by practicing social distancing…but the worst mistake we can make is to throw those face coverings off and [tell] ourselves that the virus has gone away. It has not. It is still virulent and deadly. If we love our community and our restaurants and our retail and our groomers, let’s protect them and ourselves.
“Guided by health [concerns] and data we will continue to march down this path.”
The dine-in restaurant guidelines are available online at the state’s COVID-19 response page, with the stated purpose: “to support a safe, clean environment for workers and customers” and not “revoke or repeal any employee rights, either statutory, regulatory or collectively bargained.” There is also a checklist available to streamline restaurant compliance.
He did not announce a reopening date, stating that it would be up to each individual county to attest that required benchmarks are met. At this point only six counties in the northern part of California are proceeding with the new phase: Butte, El Dorado, Lassen, Shasta, Nevada and Placer counties.
The Phase 2 blueprint—one of four phases Newsom has laid out to emerge from shelter-in-place safely—runs through the points that appear below. (For greater detail please reference the state’s website linked above.)
• A workplace specific plan
State officials seek written comprehensive risk assessment of all work areas, with a dedicated person to implement the plan at each site. Similarly exhaustive training and communication with staff is required, as are regular evaluations of the plan’s efficacy.
• Employee training
This training prioritizes circulating information on COVID-19; best practices for face covering, physical distancing at work or at home, and hand washing; education on how to prevent it from spreading; and intel on which underlying health conditions may make individuals more susceptible to contracting the virus is all part of the baseline here. Training also calls for self-screening at home, including temperature and/or symptom checks using CDC guidelines, and emphasis on the importance of staying home if any symptoms present themselves. This section also links to additional information on government programs supporting sick leave and worker’s compensation for COVID-19.
• Individual control measures and screening
Operators are asked to provide temperature and/or symptom screenings for all workers at the beginning of their shift and any vendors, contractors or other workers entering the establishment. Establishments are also asked to take reasonable measures, including posting signage in strategic and highly-visible locations, to remind the public that they should use face coverings and practice physical distancing while waiting for service and take-out. Servers, bussers, and other workers moving items used by customers (dirty cups, plates, napkins, etc.) or handling trash bags should use disposable gloves (and wash hands before putting them on and after removing them) and provide aprons and change frequently; dishwashers should use equipment to protect the eyes, nose, and mouth from contaminant splash using a combination of face coverings, protective glasses, and/or face shields.
• Cleaning and disinfecting protocols
This extensive and detailed section of the guidelines includes 26 sub-instructions, ranging from frequent cleaning of high-traffic and high-touch areas to providing disposable and/or digital menus to guests. Pre-setting tables with napkins, cutlery, glassware and food ware is on pause, as are table-side prep and any shared condiment bottles and shakers. Takeout containers must be filled by customers and available only upon request. Dirty linens used at dining tables such as tablecloths and napkins should be removed after each customer use and transported from dining areas in sealed bags.
• Physical distancing guidelines
Even more detail figures into this section. Outdoor seating, delivery and curbside pickup are very much encouraged to minimize cross flow of customers in enclosed environments. Reservations are also encouraged to limit overlap. A minimum of six feet of distance is fundamental, paired with the use of physical partitions and/or visual cues (i.e. floor markings or signs) and barriers at cash registers, bars, host stands and other areas where maintaining physical distance of six feet is difficult. Bar areas should remain closed to customers and maximum occupancy rules must be adjusted to protect customers from each other and employees. Two more key bullet points: 1) Limit the number of patrons at a single table to a household unit or patrons who have asked to be seated together; 2) Face coverings are strongly encouraged for all employees and are required for any employee (e.g., server, manager, busser, food runner, etc.) who must be within six feet of customers. (All restaurant workers should minimize the amount of time spent within six feet of guests.)
• Added considerations for restaurants
The primary action item here is displaying a set of clearly visible rules for customers and restaurant personnel at the restaurant entrance(s) that are to be a condition of entry. Appropriate signage should also be prominently displayed outlining proper face covering usage and physical distancing practices in use at all entrances and throughout the property. Also, licensed restaurants may continue to sell “to-go” alcoholic beverages, prepared drinks, and pre-mixed cocktails provided they are sold and delivered to customers in conjunction with the sale and delivery of a meal/meals.
Some speculated that a delay in the introduction of the guidelines happened because state officials wanted to first review suggestions submitted by the California Restaurant Association and reviewed by the California Retail Food Safety Coalition.
The three-page document acquired by Edible Monterey Bay outlines four categories of imperatives that prove similar to California’s final Phase 2 instructions: 1. employee health; 2. social distancing; 3. diner education; 4. increased sanitation and disinfection. It also emphatically requests “as much advance notice regarding when the statewide restaurant dining rooms can gradually reopen…[to] help ensure the elevated health protocols are in place, allow time to ramp up restaurant staffing, and assist with restaurant purchases from suppliers.”
Carmel Valley Ranch executive chef Tim Wood is among those restaurant pros now processing the governmental direction. But he wasn’t waiting around for a Newsom press conference or restaurant association recommendations to start formulating a plan. Property guidelines from corporate are already in place and CVR added some of its own.
Masks are universal. Plexiglass appears wherever appropriate. Wood has penciled out a floor plan with no tables bigger than six—four tops dominate—with the quantity of total seats cut in half. Having expanded seating possibilities on the patio helps them serve more people.
They’ve had practice on new protocols with the opening of their golf club earlier this month, and Wood admits they’ve gone benevolently overboard in disinfecting carts—in the morning when they come out of the garage, at the end of the day before they go back in, and 10 minutes before any round. The pro shop is closed and strict rules govern things like the amount of time an employee can wear the same protective gloves.
“We’re taking every single precaution that is given to us and adding to it,” Wood says. “We’re all in on making this happen the smart way.” With that in mind, the Ranch’s kitchen will open to guests June 1, with the hopes of serving locals by the end of June.
Same goes for Downtown Dining’s three restaurants, Montrio Bistro and Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey and Rio Grill in Carmel. Downtown Dining released a statement Monday announcing preparations to open as soon as the state’s shelter-in-place order is lifted, with extra precautions in place surrounding cleanliness, social distancing and food safety at the three locations.
“We have ordered many of the hard-to-find safety supplies and are excited to bring our team back,” co-owner Tony Tollner said Monday. “We look forward to announcing our rollout plan shortly.”
Tollner and team are hoping service can resume when current SIP orders expire May 31, and they are considering “contactless” curbside pickup, delivery, family meals to-go and more.
He added that down the road, even after regulations might be relaxed, the staff at each DD restaurant will remain “extra vigilant” about safety precautions outlined by county and state health officials, including thorough cleaning and disinfecting of restaurants, physical distancing, face coverings and frequent hand washing for all staff.
Nationally, last week the Trump administration rejected reopening guidelines for restaurants put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because they were “overly prescriptive.”
Accepted or not, the draft guidelines furnish insight into how restaurants might best design their operations across the country.
Similar to California, the CDC structures its own phased reopening: In Phase 1, bars stay closed and restaurants can do takeout, curbside pickup and delivery; Phase 2 allows bars with limited capacity and restaurants with revamped, physically distanced floor plans; by Phase 3, bars and restaurants can operate if they meet distancing minimums. The draft, which was leaked, stops short of delineating what the criteria would be for ending one phase and beginning the next; one potential threshold could be a requirement that the number of new Covid-19 cases trend downward for two weeks in a row.
Some of the most interesting elements in the guidelines come in the specific recommended details: disposable dishes and utensils whenever possible (an unfortunate setback for anti-single-use plastic progress); contactless payment options; a moratorium on self-serve areas like salad bars, buffets, and drink stations; employee staffing restrictions to allow for physically distant food preparation; immediately deployable closure plans should infection rates increase locally or a case be reported on the premises.
Officials like Newsom emphasize that application of guidelines will vary county to county, and city to city. One thing will apply universally: Operating a restaurant, and eating and drinking out, will never be quite the same.