By Erin Bank
San Francisco restaurants started serving customers at outdoor tables on June 15 after three months of being restricted to take-out and delivery to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Indoor dining was supposed to be allowed in July under Phase 2C of the city’s reopening plan, though the situation changes daily as the number of new COVID-19 cases is constantly fluctuating.
The process of reopening is not as simple as just inviting customers back. Restaurant owners find themselves navigating new permit applications, rules about distance between customers, training for staff and incomplete direction from city officials – all on top of the stress of struggling to pay staff and wondering what their future holds in the unpredictable reality of the pandemic.
“We’re trying to take it day by day,” said Awadalla “Howard” Awadalla, owner of SF Hole in the Wall Pizza at 1825 Irving St. “I can’t look too far ahead because it’s not predictable.”
His restaurant already had a permit to operate outside, so they were allowed to set up tables seating 10 diners on the sidewalk on June 15, losing one table to ensure adequate spacing between patrons and pedestrians.
The indoor dining area, once able to seat 40 people and host private events, including a popular weekly family night event, will be able to hold only 15 to 20 people because of new spacing requirements.
Awadalla held up a pile of lengthy documents from the San Francisco Department of Public Health outlining new requirements for businesses. He tries to communicate information to his staff so they can follow the ever-changing rules about sanitizing and disinfecting, wearing masks, keeping six feet of distance, putting up signage and what to do when a customer is not compliant.
Awadalla said he may get more information than other business owners due to his role as vice president of the Outer Sunset Merchant and Professional Association. He works with the business owners in his area, helping them to understand the rules and how to apply for new grants and loans. He tries to fill in for a lack of guidance on the ground from city officials.
“I have to educate myself,” he said. “Rules are hard to make universal.”
This leaves a lot up to the interpretation of business owners, who may not necessarily get more information than the general public.
Doug Marschke is the owner of The Taco Shop at Underdogs at 1824 Irving St. and Underdogs Too at 3600 Taraval St. He said he needs to play many roles.
“As an owner, you have to be an expert in customer service and food, and you have to be an epidemiologist,” he said.
“It’s really just about everyone feeling safe,” Marschke said, describing his approach to reopening. He said reopening will require an overhaul of operations and a significant investment of time and resources. Changes range from big (new disinfecting standards) to small (not being able to provide shared bottles of salsa at each table).
Marschke said he aims to open the outdoor space on the sidewalk at Underdogs Too by July.
“We’re hustling, there’s just a lot of moving parts,” Marschke said.
Marschke applied for a permit under San Francisco’s Shared Spaces Program, which grants free, temporary permits to allow businesses to expand onto city sidewalks or parking spaces until Dec. 31, 2020. His permit was still pending a week after applying, even though the process is only supposed to take two days (Awadalla experienced a similar delay). New tables and barricades to give space to pedestrians were also a huge capital investment.
The restaurant’s Super Shot basketball arcade game will be wheeled out. A new Molecule Air Pro RX air purifier, designed for use in hospitals to remove airborne bacteria and viruses, will take its place.
Marschke also needed time to fully train his 34 staff members, something he had to do himself because he did not receive specific resources from the City.
“The Department of Public Health says you have to do training, but they don’t really give you anything,” he said. “There isn’t a person who calls us, who asks what we need.”
In addition to the required one-hour training sessions, staff members will also be tested prior to opening and provided mental health and wellness resources.
Through it all, Marschke and Awadalla have felt supported by their neighborhoods, both by fellow business owners and their customers.
“My staff are getting tips up to 30 percent. It’s heartwarming,” Awadalla said.
“The neighborhood’s been awesome, people are coming in here and just tipping our staff,” Marschke said. “We’ve also been trying to give back and we are involved in a food program where people in need can come in and get food.”