Signage at Gott's Roadside in St. Helena Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED
Signage at Gott's Roadside in St. Helena (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

This Is What Restaurant Reopening Looks Like: Bizarre and Confusing

This Is What Restaurant Reopening Looks Like: Bizarre and Confusing

On Saturday, June 6, Sonoma County restaurants will open for dine-in service for the first time since the county's shelter-in-place order began, nearly three months ago.

Over the past weekend, a select number of Napa and Sonoma restaurants and wineries were the first to open up their dining rooms and patios to customers.

A couple celebrates their anniversary at Cole's Chop House in Napa. (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

As more restaurants prepare for dine-in service around the Bay Area, the early openings in Napa and Sonoma help illustrate what reopening will look like. They also raise questions about exactly how to reopen during a global pandemic and a moment of national civil unrest and reckoning.

I visited several of these restaurants and wineries on May 28 and 30. To say the least, it was bizarre, scary and confusing.

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On one hand, these are unprecedented times. After months of sheltering in place, people are excited to simply be out in public, said chef-partner Phil Tessier of Press restaurant in St. Helena.

 

On the other hand, at the same time people dined out in Napa and Sonoma like it was business as usual, protests were underway in San Francisco and around the Bay Area in response to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota.

From the restaurant perspective, owners and managers have to consider the safety of their customers and their staff. At Press, Tessier has created separate systems for bussing and sending out food to avoid cross-contamination. And while workers in many restaurants are still furloughed, he said that it actually requires more staff to offer dine-in service that complies with safety current social distancing guidelines.

Press waitstaff serving diners during their new lunch program. (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

A common sight at all of these restaurants is diners sitting at tables without masks, while waitstaff wears masks and gloves.

What Reopening Looks Like

The outdoor seating at Napa's Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin' BBQ. (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

It brings into question privilege and etiquette around dining during a pandemic. Yes, it's impossible to eat with a mask on. But shouldn't a waiter be able to feel the same amount of safety a diner does when they're in the diner's space? When should the mask come off?

Safety concerns begin with ordering. At Boon Fly Cafe, customers are encouraged to access the menu via QR code to avoid multiple people touching menus.

There's also a general sentiment of 'is it safe?' Dining rooms are enclosed spaces, and a limited study suggests that air currents play a role in spreading the coronavirus. That's why many restaurants in these counties have prioritized outdoor seating and patio spaces. The same is true for wineries.

In Sonoma County, tasting rooms like Meadowcroft sold wine by the glass on May 30.

 

On one occasion, on the sidewalk/ entry of a Napa restaurant,  a closely assembled group of people without masks waited on the sidewalk to be seated. A car drove up, and a lady shouted, "There is no social distancing here." (In response, one member of the group said, "Thanks, Karen.")

Stir-fry ramen at Protea in Yountville (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

At Boon Fly Cafe, a boy asked his mom when he could take off his mask while sitting at the table.

Signage and backyard dining area at Gott's Roadside in St. Helena

The answer, it seems, is not so apparent.