May 26, 2020 – The anticipation of some takeout food from Carmel Belle had me borderline giddy.
Don’t get me wrong. Nonstop bunker cooking has been good to my belly and my soul. But a rustic sandwich and a salad stuffed with free-range chicken, avocado, tomato, Hobb’s bacon and blue cheese was going to be a nice Memorial Day weekend treat.
What I ran into on the way to pick it up threw my appetite for a loop.
Carmel-by-the-Sea was Carmel-by-the-scene. Ocean Avenue was flowing with people, many of them tourists, few of them wearing masks. My unscientific count would be 10 percent of individuals were using facial coverings.
Tuck Box was a swarm of people, adding context to the surreal story that’s become national news. (ICYMI, owner Jeffrey LeTowt is loudly rejecting the county’s shelter-in-place order, dismissing physical distancing guidelines and serving diners without wearing a face mask. He faces three misdemeanor counts of violating the order, with arraignment scheduled for July 13.) Tables appeared in parking spots in front of restaurants like Flaherty’s Seafood and Enzo Ristorante Italiano; diners poured wine into plastic cups and opened to-go boxes of food. The sidewalk in front of Dametra Cafe was surprisingly crowded, with little to zero face masks to be seen.
That was Sunday. Earlier that week, on May 20, Carmel City Administrator Chip Rerig announced that he would start accepting applications from restaurants seeking permission to set out tables and allow people to eat take out food there, at a safe distance, without waiter service. Interested restaurants were empowered to seek encroachment waivers to use sidewalks and parking spaces, as long as they released the city of liability, presented a site-and-seating plan, and installed appropriate safety measures like plastic barriers.
“Make it safe, make it pretty,” Rerig said. “It will be up to restaurants to police their patrons.”
“I think we are going to have to count on our residents and our merchants to be responsible,” Mayor Dave Potter added. “Some of our visitors don’t realize we have rules we have to play by in this community.”
Amy Herzog is executive director of Visit Carmel, which manages the marketing for Carmel’s hospitality improvement district, restaurant improvement district and the city. She spoke at the May 20 city update, detailing the marketing shift from staying home to “starting to dream” about visiting Carmel once leisure travel bans are lifted. She’s also among those pleased with the city’s decision.
“I think it was a creative and progressive decision,” she says, “to find a way to support the restaurants in Carmel.”
The permits are valid through the end of the year. In the meantime, Carmel’s planning department can consider more permanent solutions and draft more guidance.
With staffs at skeleton status, Herzog observes an interesting consequence of coronavirus: Restaurant owners are increasingly behind the stove and/or attending to guests.
“They’re doing the cooking, the serving and staying up on regulations,” she says. “It’s an incredible amount of work and energy for these restaurateurs. With their success comes our success: Hiring staff back, providing nourishing meals for diners, adding to the economic vitality of the city, something we’re all rooting for.”
Anthony Carnazzo is one of those hands-on operators. He co-owns The Stationæry with his wife Alissa—and they live upstairs with their kids—and is chair of the restaurant improvement district. He and his wife submitted their encroachment application, featuring a parklet, over the weekend and hope to seat diners this week.
“One of my favorite parts of living above the restaurant is the old-school vibe of it,” Carnazzo says. “I’ve missed the buzz of the restaurant—people laughing, silverware clinking, happy voices—and I really miss welcoming my neighbors.”
Restaurateur Rich Pepe applied for the encroachment allowance as this piece published.
“What’s exciting for me is getting some people back to work and helping them provide for their families,” he says. “And to get the community up and lively again. Our loyal customers really want to enjoy something out of the house.”
But he adds that he’s in no rush, and thinking long and hard about all the factors of reopening, including patio/rooftop options, bathroom protocols and the preponderance of high-touch items in every restaurant.
“The last thing we want to do is be involved in any kind of infection,” he says. “We’re going to be ultra-conservative in how we follow the rules, and really work to evolve our to-go game.”
Potter was among those surveying Carmel’s streets Memorial Day weekend.
“To have some urban life on streets again was nice,” he says. “The response I got from people dining was a lot of thumbs up, a lot of nods.”
He wasn’t stoked about the amount of visitors treating regulations cavalierly. “It’s the out-of-towners who are most blatantly violating the orders,” he says. “If they want to compromise someone’s health, I wish they’d do it in another community than ours.”
He mentioned his hope that at least part of the restaurants’ pandemic era lingers long-term: outdoor dining.
“I love sidewalk cafe-style dining, it’s very European,” he says. “My hope is that it becomes a permanent situation.”
Today, at a special meeting of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, the supes voted unanimously to approve the reopening of county restaurants and shops, pending the go-ahead from the California Department of Public Health.
They also called for the reopening of offices, outdoor public places, shopping malls, religious gatherings, schools, car washes and pet grooming services. All come with requirements for physical distancing and wearing of face masks when that distancing isn’t possible.
Entertainment venues, hotels, libraries, museums, concerts, convention centers and live audience events were not included.
The approval came on the heels of a presentation by County Health Officer Dr. Ed Moreno on the county’s readiness for reopening. He announced Monterey County meets Gov. Gavin Newsom’s metrics for hospitalizations, positivity rate, available testing and hospital capacity.
While life is very far from being back to normal, and hopefully people everywhere remain inspired to be patient with restrictions and vigilant about community safety, things have begun to resemble days past.
“Walking through [Carmel] last weekend, it felt closer to normal than it has for a really long time,” Herzog says. “And that felt good.”