'A Lot of Pressure': Bay Area Restaurants Search for Safety Net in Light of COVID-19

Anula Edirisinghe, who has been serving the breakfast and lunch crowd in downtown Oakland, is facing new uncertainties under COVID-19. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

Restaurant owners and workers across the Bay Area are contending with a new reality brought on by local recommendations around COVID-19 containment.

Last week, they braced for fewer customers, fewer shifts and reduced tips. And in the coming week, they'll need to re-adjust once more as governor Gavin Newsom called for the closure of all bars, wineries and breweries on Sunday. The governor also directed that restaurants limit their occupancy to 50% in order to promote social distancing and curb new infections.

As inherently social, public-facing businesses, restaurants and bars stand to be impacted heavily by the economic repercussions of COVID-19's spread. The majority of their hourly workers are not protected by sick leave and other benefits. County and city-wide policies are also specifying Newsom’s directives with their own further restrictions, with Los Angeles limiting restaurants to take-out only.

Last Thursday at Anula’s Cafe, a downtown Oakland breakfast and lunch favorite, owner and chef Anula Edirisinghe served up her salmon curry, a daily special from her Sri Lankan and West Indian menu. Inside of the bite-sized cafe, Edirisinghe employs one other person besides herself, and her daughter occasionally comes by the cafe to help as well. She said she had a particularly slow day last Tuesday and was hoping Thursday wouldn’t bring more of the same. “I usually make a day like four to five hundred, but that day [I made] like a hundred dollars,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

Though Anula’s Cafe is mostly takeout, Edirisinghe will undoubtedly feel the ebbs and flows of her business, as she also pays rent at a commissary kitchen where the food is prepared. The chef remains optimistic—although less so about the prospect of the city of Oakland helping small business owners like herself. “You have to support small business. You have to support like a low income people, you know? And they only think about the stock market,” she said.

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So far, the city of Oakland has set up an online resource page for workers and small business owners outlining programs at federal, state and local levels. Significant among those is the state of California's waiving of the one week, unpaid waiting period for unemployment qualification. At the city level, Oakland is waiving penalties for business taxes that were due on March 1, 2020 by request.

L Sok manages their family's lunchtime spot, Garden House, and is bracing for economic hardship under COVID-19.
L Sok manages their family's lunch time spot, Garden House, and is bracing for economic hardship under COVID-19. (Bianca Taylor)

Just a few blocks away, another lunch favorite open since 1991, Garden House, has braced for the possibilities of life under COVID-19. “The safety net is just the fact that I'm young and healthy and that if somebody needs to take time off for their own safety and their own health, that I would have to fill in,” shared L Sok, who works at Garden House alongside their two friends, their mother and their aunt. “I'm working with my elders here, [our] priority is to make sure that they're healthy and that they're not over here risking their lives to make an hourly wage,” Sok continued. 

In 2014, Sok’s older sibling Terry Sok-Wolfson bought the business for their mom, who had worked there since 1992. Adding to the financial pressure of running a restaurant is an extensive and costly renovation that forced a two-and-a-half-year closure of the eatery. Since reopening last fall, the revamped Garden House serves as a hub housing Aburaya’s takeout branch and a weekend and evening pop-up from Gay 4 U, a vegan comfort food operation by Sofi Espice. 

Last Thursday afternoon, Garden House in downtown Oakland looked to be business as usual, but under new restriction by Gov. Newsom, restaurants are to limit their capacity to half.
Last Thursday afternoon, Garden House in downtown Oakland looked to be business as usual but under new restriction by Gov. Newsom, restaurants are to limit their capacity to half. (Bianca Taylor)

Similarly to Edirisinghe, Sok isn’t certain the city of Oakland will be of sufficient support as the duress from COVID-19 persists on small businesses. “If we have to be closed for a week to make sure that we're not spreading the virus and that nobody in our space contracts it, if the city could ease up and give us some funding so that we can continue to survive, that would be great,” they said. “If we didn't have to pay rent to the developers who developed this building, that would be great.”

“We're not working for random employers who will take advantage of us,” Sok reflected about working with family and friends. "But it puts a lot of pressure on all of us in the family to figure it out and make it work."