January 25, 2021 – Normal. After 11 months of living with the pandemic, normalcy might be the most elusive and sought after feeling.
But while assessing what that word means these days gets complicated, reasonable people can agree that a return to outdoor dining, which is happening with the latest updates to coronavirus protocol, is a step in a “normal” direction.
The California Department of Public Health has decided the existing stay-at-home order is no longer required because four-week ICU capacity is projected to surpass 15 percent. Statewide, cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions appear to be leveling off.
In addition to outdoor dining returning, indoor hair and nail salons can operate again at reduced capacity.
Melville Tavern owner-operator Ian Penniman got to his downtown Monterey eatery early today to start serving again.
“The priorities are keeping the community safe in a controlled outside experience and getting our employees back to work,” he says, “while doing what we do best: Serving people good food.”
In Soquel, Discretion Brewing co-owner Rob Genco is particularly stoked to tap into al fresco eating and drinking because 1) The brewery acquired a big tent for parking lot seating right before the stay-at-home order went into effect; and 2) New executive chef Brad Briske has been tightening up his new menu at HOMEfry after four days of doing takeout.
“His food is fantastic, and we’re looking forward to using the beer garden and having people sit on redwood stumps when the drizzle stops and the sun returns,” Genco says. “Most importantly we are able to serve draft beer again.
“Now we can turn the draft system back on, and there’s nothing quite like a fresh beer out of the tap. Guests can enjoy a draft, have a snack and feel a little bit more normal.”
In Carmel Valley, Bernardus Lodge is among the lucky venues with multiple patios and tented dining.
“The timing is excellent with our new heated pavilion…and we look forward to welcoming and reconnecting with our resort guests and local friends,” says vice president and general manager Sean Damery, while plugging chef Cal Stamenov’s fresh Dungeness crab “in a variety of ways,” and a full menu for Valentine’s weekend.
Keeping with the plot twists of the pandemic, the reopening happens in concert with a big-time weather pattern. Butter House in Seaside just launched a Facebook fundraiser because the outdoor canopy that’s key to its pandemic service was compromised by fierce winds.
From the government side of the situation, State Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly weighed in on the update via a statement.
“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” his statement reads. “Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front-line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the healthcare system to the degree we had feared.”
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been push-back. One of the loudest voices protesting the revision statewide belongs to Los Angeles Times health reporter Soumya Karlamangla.
“[L]ifting all the rules when cases are still high will give them room to start growing again!” she tweeted. “Just because we’re past Christmas/NYE doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods in preventing that terrifying surge-upon-a-surge.”
Locally, Zachary Davis, co-creator of The Glass Jar behind Penny Ice Creamery, Snap Taco and The Picnic Basket in Santa Cruz, was caught off-guard by the announcement. Despite the fact that he serves on the county’s Economic Recovery Council, he learned of the shift from a New York Times alert.
“I was a little surprised,” he says. “I was hoping to hear from local or state officials. We have to roll with it and get our outdoor seating back up and running and hope things get going in the right direction.”
He also hopes better communication can give restaurant owners common sense support.
“It’s definitely confusing for a lot of business owners. I get it, it’s a pandemic, but for the industry I’m in, any information is better than no information,” he says. “Even if it’s 24 hours notice, it’s better than a same day head’s up.
In that he identifies opportunity.
“We’re in a fight to keep [coronavirus] under control and keep everyone safe, but we’re not always treated as full partners in that—almost like we’re looking to cut corners, so it’s not as important that we know, and it’s fine for us to react to whatever’s coming our way. But keeping business owners informed and empowered to be as helpful as possible by being transparent is best for everybody.
“We are erring on the conservative side and we want to help,” he continues, “but we can’t do that if we don’t know what’s going on and how they’re making their decisions.”
He does add one uplifting outcome from all the confusion: inspiration for a new menu item.
“We should make an ice cream flavor dedicated to everything,” he says. “We can call it Chaos.”