Winter is Here: Holiday Shutdowns Leave Sacramento Valley Restaurant Owners In The Cold And On The Brink

audrey wells

Photo by Daniel Durko on Unsplash

The Farm-to-Fork dinner on Sacramento’s Tower Bridge, 2013. (Photo: Jeremy Sykes for SacTown Magazine)

After a devastating year that began with a statewide lockdown in March, Sacramento’s food and beverage industry have been forced to react and respond to yet another seismic shift on the Valley’s nationally acclaimed Farm to Fork landscape.

Sacramento’s food, beverage, and hospitality small business owners are frustrated, angry, and now pleading for state and local officials to reconsider its most recent and aggressive shutdown measure since the state’s first stay-at-home order since March.

On the eve of what is traditionally the industry’s most lucrative and high-volume season, California officials announced a statewide curfew prohibiting nearly all residents from leaving their homes to do nonessential work or to gather from 10 pm — 5 am effective November 21 thru December 21.

This most recent curfew forces businesses and restaurants to close in-person operations at 10 pm — including outdoor dining — while indoor-seating, even at 25% capacity, must now shut down altogether.

Calls for such aggressive action can be attributed to The California Department of Public Health’s most recent report revealing an upward spike in Sacramento County infections from 9.7 cases per 100,000 the week ending October 31 to today’s current double-digits — 21.7 per 100,000 the week ending November 10.

However it’s the punitive and economically aggressive measures being proposed and coordinated by County health chief Dr. Peter Beilenson, and county health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye, advocating for an ordinance to allow the county to fine businesses refusing to follow state and local pandemic protocols.

Threats of fines and citations are simply pouring salt in their wounds during a year when restaurant owners and their staff are already on the verge of bleeding out.

Restaurants scramble to adapt or perish

The California Retail Food Code, its current version effective January 1, 2018 — notable as pre-Covid-19 — includes over 100-pages of rules and regulations addressing all aspects of food handling and safety additionally and in great detail, strict criteria regarding employee health, handwashing, personal cleanliness, and hygiene.

Fast-forward November 2020 as restaurants large and small across the state and Sacramento county scramble to remain creative and fast on their feet, adjusting make-shift and permanent outdoor seating areas to further accommodate lowering outdoor temperatures and inclement winter weather.

After a jarring spring shutdown, The Cares Act provided much-needed relief, however, the industry was far from out of the woods.

Desperate to regain their footing, food and beverage businesses moved swiftly into action to meet new state and local health and safety mandates well above and beyond their baseline high health and safety standards.

 Compliancy not only included enforcing mask-wearing for both employees and patrons, but in many cases included retrofitting dining rooms, adding ventilation, and redesigning gathering spaces both indoors and outdoors.

The high-cost of survival demands increased spending

However, offering alfresco dining for some dining venues comes with a high price tag as outdoor accommodations require necessities like heaters, tents, and weather-friendly furnishings in order to accommodate outdoor elements and include proper social distancing.

Yet as restaurants invested and expanded seating in order to stay open—Covid-19's restrictions slashed some occupancies by 75% requiring shifting strategies including relying solely on take-out or delivery in order to remain in compliance with the ever-changing rules and regulations in the age of the 2020 Global Pandemic.

Chefs, Cooks, Hosts, Nurses, Enforcers & Buzz-Kills: Too many hats in the kitchen

In addition to redesigning and in some cases redefining all aspects of their hospitality businesses as quickly as press releases are drafted and updated mandates are issued — small business restaurant owners in the Sacramento Valley and California continue to rally in the interest of the greater good and for their very own survival as businesses, and in some cases family legacies.

Where once their focus was more or less exclusively on preparing and serving good food, beverages, and the social experience of shared dining — post Covid-19 priorities include not only admonishing and managing staff as it relates to rules and mandatory mask-wearing — but now guests may require policing — through enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing which some guests perceive to be an infringement of their personal freedom.

And if anyone — employee or customer tests positive for Covid-19 — restaurant management and food and beverage small business owners are subsequently tasked as contact-tracers and quarantine-monitors.

Hospitality is under siege.

Thanksgiving #2020: Something’s gotta give

As Sacramento’s food and beverage industry is pummeled emotionally and economically — a grassroots coalition of restaurant owners from the region and across the valley is meeting regularly in a desperate attempt to avoid permanent business closures.

This diverse group includes new and established restaurateurs and industry investors asking gently yet forcefully for ‘deciders’ to consider solutions above and beyond curfews and indoor-dining closures.

The cries for economic and local government support from these small business owners and entrepreneurs is deafening.

Throughout what was once a thriving and growing ‘Food City’ — a full-court press went into effect to delay a critical vote at a recent County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Retaurant owners, managers, and advocates went into action through a letter-writing campaign spearheaded by Diane Lally, Special Events Manager for several noted Sacramento destinations, in an effort to force state health and government officials into action.

In several letters addressed to The County Board of Supervisors; Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy, Susan Peters, Sue Frost, and Don Nottolli — Lally, including but not limited to Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, President, Amanda Blackwood, requested delaying an agenda-item vote putting restaurants back into the purple tier, aka another full shutdown.

Without the support of economic assistance from our federal or state agencies, these restaurateurs and their staff fear being eighty-sixed once and for all. According to Diane Lally a member of this once-thriving industry since the early 90s:

“Our industry used to employ 1.4M people in California, almost 100,000 in our region. Right now, almost half of us are unemployed, and the new closings will make this number larger.”

Letter-writing efforts to delay the vote proved successful. As industry representatives including but not limited to Ms. Lally, representing Cafeteria15L, Mix Downtown, The Park Ultra Lounge, Public House, Iron Horse, and Mas Taco — and Sam Manilakas of Brookfieflds Family Restaurants, family-owned and operated and a staple across the Sacramento Valley staple, apprised County Board members of their opposition to this controversial vote and has been moved for reconsideration at the next County Board meeting in early December.

Fines, Curfews, and Citations: Punitive actions driving a wedge

A call out to the federal agency and local Alcohol Beverage Control [ABC] as well as law enforcement to reconsider issuing citations or fines for those businesses clearly operating in good-faith and maintaining strict health and safety protocols to relax or waive fines or citations especially at this very critical juncture the winter and holiday season.

Letters to Board members to reconsider reacting to a purple-tier status through indoor dining closures attempted to both educate and implore, as this excerpt from Diane Lally illustrates:

The effect of restaurant closings is incalculable. The loss of wages for employees, the loss of income for the city and state from lost tax revenues, the loss of sales to our fish, food companies, our produce suppliers, the linen company, and even the company that comes to take our garbage or our discarded grease—if we can’t pay them, they can’t pay their employees and so on and so on. The food and beverage chain is never-ending.

Business owners, specifically in the food and beverage industry, are relying on each other to ‘keep up’ as they navigate the fast-moving, ever-changing rules and regulations these unprecedented times have added to their restaurant operations.

California’s hospitality and restaurant industry is in real and present danger of losing the hard-won investments it’s made over the past 20 years to create a diverse and world-class city, not only for visitors and tourists but for its entire community, including the thousands of workers and “Farm to Fork” sectors relying and surviving on the income restaurant-work offers.

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East coast roots—West coast spirit. "Tell the truth and shame the devil." ~ Françoise Rabelais Writer, artist, proprietress and antique peddler with reverence for the past and aspirations for the future.

Sacramento, CA

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