‘This will really hurt’: Restaurants brace for return to no in-person dining

The Crow's Nest in Santa Cruz Harbor has been one of outdoor dining's success stories amid the bleak pandemic.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

For all their efforts to survive by swerving to outdoor dining, business owners are now facing another blow if the new state restrictions force them back to pick-up and delivery service only.

Update, Dec. 16, 1:23 p.m.

Lookout originally published this story after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced stay-at-home-order plans on Dec. 3. The order is now set to take effect because of a dip in ICU bed capacity in the Bay Area region. That means restaurants here will have to cease outdoor dining starting Friday, Dec. 18, for at least three weeks.

At Britannia Arms pub and restaurant in Capitola, owner Andy Hewitt said he was forced to lay off his entire staff when California’s strict stay-at-home order took effect in March.

But he managed to keep the eatery operating until those restrictions eased, gradually rehiring workers and welcoming customers back with new outside seating along the Capitola Esplanade.

After Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an impending new stay-at-home order on Thursday — which could force all in-person dining to a temporary halt in coming weeks — Hewitt worries he’ll have to go through it all again.

“If I had another job somewhere, and this wasn’t my sole income, we’d probably close the doors,” said Hewitt. “But this is what we do for a living, me and my wife. We don’t have other jobs, so we don’t have a choice.”

Lookout’s lowdown on Santa Cruz County’s diverse economy, from tech to tourism to agriculture.

He’s far from alone. Restaurant owners are bracing for the worst as it appears likely Newsom’s order — which is based on the capacity of ICU beds — will take effect before Christmas.

In Watsonville, Jalisco Mexican Cuisine manager Rick Hernandez said the restaurant could be forced to lay off most of its staff. “It’d be a huge impact,” he said.

Oswald, in downtown Santa Cruz, is also doing most of its business — about 75% — in-person via outdoor dining, according to chef and owner Damani Thomas.

If the new order takes effect, “it’s going to dramatically cut into the amount of hours that I’ll be able to offer my employees and the amount of business that I’ll be able to generate at the restaurant,” Thomas said.

Damani Thomas, owner and chef at Oswald.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Amid the pandemic, many establishments have found ways to make ends meet — even if tenuously — by working with local governments to seat patrons in newly minted dining areas on the sidewalk, in parking lots or cordoned-off areas of the street.

But Newsom’s latest order threatens to change that. He said Thursday he has little doubt surging cases will push ICU capacity in the Bay Area region, which includes Santa Cruz, below the 15% threshold and trigger the stay-at-home order by mid- to late-December. Restaurants would be forced to halt all in-person service for at least three weeks.

“It will certainly impact and potentially threaten the existence of a number of restaurants in Santa Cruz County,” said Zach Davis, co-owner of The Glass Jar restaurant group and a member of the county’s Economic Recovery Council.

The timing, Davis added, is “particularly unfortunate” with many businesses running dry of federal PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds, if not out of them already.

The pandemic has taken its toll on dining out, but these resilient restaurateurs have stayed the course in Santa Cruz...

Still, some restaurateurs were preparing for Thursday’s news to sting even more.

“We thought they’d maybe give us 24 hours and shut it down immediately, so for us this is a win,” said Sara Allufi, co-manager at The Crow’s Nest in Santa Cruz Harbor. “To squeeze out another week is a lot better than the alternative.”

The Crow’s Nest has been one of outdoor dining’s shining stars given the on-the-sand beach tent the restaurant was given permission to construct by the Coastal Commission. The tent, plus the outside deck seating already built in, has given the Crow’s Nest as much outdoor capacity as anyone in the county.

The Crow’s Nest has also swerved effectively into an online order and curbside pickup approach, but the human effects of an impending three-week shutdown can’t be minimized, Alluffi said.

“Outdoor dining has allowed us to keep the people we employ busy and earning enough to live,” Allufi said. “This will really hurt.”

Jalisco, the Watsonville restaurant, also found success with outdoor dining, doubling its outside seating to about 20 tables after it was allowed to expand seating into the parking lot. “Our outdoor dining has actually worked out well for us,” said Hernandez, the manager.

The Capitola Esplanade aggressively adapted to outdoor dining.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The new round of looming restrictions only underscores the need for another round of federal relief for small busineses, said Casey Beyer, CEO of the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I think the White House and the Congress fumbled the ball in the summer when they should have done another round,” Beyer said, calling for federal lawmakers and the administration to put politics aside and pass another relief bill. “This isn’t politics, this is human necessity.”

Davis, The Glass Jar co-owner, said his businesses’ PPP funds are already gone, and he isn’t putting much stock in any immediate federal relief.

“At this point, it’s just kind of a waiting game,” Davis said, “and we’ll prepare as best we can.”

Contributing: Mark Conley, Kevin Painchaud