Can California Restaurants Make It Over The COVID Finish Line: 2020, A High-Stakes Marathon

audrey wells

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

They’re whip-sawed. They’re flailing. They’re desperate.

And the odds of surviving another eminent lockdown grow slim to none with each passing holiday. Restaurant owners and the people their once wide economic nets cast and supported have nothing to celebrate in 2020.

The brutal truths of living in the midst of a Global Pandemic have significantly if not permanently altered all of our lives. For those who have friends or family whose proximity to the Covid-19 virus resulted in hospitalization, or worse, death—the pain and grief are staggering.

Yet in the thick of untold suffering our food, beverage, and hospitality industry struggles and battles to not only protect their lives and the lives of their employees and patrons—the dogfight to save their livelihoods and in some cases, family legacies, is ironic in light of what drew them to this sector in the first place; a desire to provide their communities with good food, good drinks, good service, and good company.

Running a Brutal Race Not “To End”

And what sounds simple on the face is rarely easy, and restaurant owners, specifically in the small business entrepreneurial category understand the odds were stacked against them before they welcomed their first guests.

In April 2019, FRS Magazine [Full Restaurant Service Magazine] reported familiar yet staggering statistics. Sixty percent of restaurants won’t make it past their first year with eighty percent not making it to their fifth year.

And then came 2020 and with it Covid-19.

Purple Tier Pushes “Survivors” into The Red

George Dariotis, President and part-owner of the Old Spaghetti Factory, serving meals and memories since 1969, is one of the many Sacramento destination restaurants and icons in the valley grappling with the future of this dining legacy. 

Dariotis and several of his high-profile colleagues and friends in River City’s culinary community are pleading with state and local officials to reconsider piling on to the exhaustive measures already taken throughout their industry in particular.

This latest change to the purple tier will cost the jobs of our loyal employees and adversely affect our vendors, farmers, and others who support our industry. I am asking for you to continue to work with us collaboratively to gain our perspectives and understand our challenges. Allow us a seat at the table.

Sue Frost, Sacramento County Supervisor, District 4, issued a strong rebuke after Sacramento County was officially demoted to “purple tier” status on November 13, on the eve of the unofficial launch of the winter holiday season.

Our public health department already knows that well over half of the COVID cases are coming from the City of Sacramento, even though they represent only about one third of the County population. Our State policies should allow us to take things like this into consideration, yet California remains ignorantly adhered to flawed policies that hurt our community, even when given a clear pathway to do things more efficiently and safely.

Adapt and [Still] Perish

Yelp has been tracking business closures since the pandemic and reports that between March 1 and July 10—131 restaurants and 99 retail businesses were marked as permanently closed.

These grim shutdowns reveal the very real fate hanging over the industry above and beyond the grueling day-to-day of “business as usual”.

While many scrambled successfully to regain their footing and meet and sustain new state and local health and safety mandates above and beyond “baseline high” health and safety standards—compliance would not come cheap or easy.

Not only were they now tasked to enforce mask-wearing for both employees and patrons, but in many cases required retrofitting dining rooms, upgrading ventilation systems, and redesigning gathering spaces both indoors and outdoors.

For those businesses barely able to weather the first shutdown in March, the prospect of yet another shutdown after a dismal, difficult, and too short ‘recovery period’ may be their last call. 

“I think there were a lot of restaurants opening in Sacramento pre-COVID, and you introduce COVID and I think those that were having a hard time before that, this kind of pushed them over the edge,” said Mike Testa with Visit Sacramento. “Many adapted and tried to catch up with that new model, but they reopened again and then they closed again. So, it is hard to find some consistency when you’re changing the business model over and over.”

From Food and Friendliness: To Feeling Scape-Goated and Abandoned

Diane Lally, Special Events Manager for several well-known downtown restaurants has rallied her peers since early November to come together as an industry coalition that deserves to be heard at both the county and state levels as decisions are being made with regard to new mandates and closures.

In an impassioned letter to Governor Newsom, Lally asks questions echoed by others in the industry including several elected officials:

Why have restaurants been singled out?
Where is the data proving keeping restaurants open is spreading Covid-19?

According to one Sacramento County Board member, our public health department already knows what is causing an increase in COVID cases: private gatherings and outbreaks in some long-term care facilities.

Our County Health and State officials have admitted the main problem is caused by increases in social gatherings and nursing care facilities, not restaurants. Why should the ‘low-lying fruit’ in this case, our restaurants, be unjustly targeted? asks Mr. Dariotis.

The Greater Sacramento Economic Council said national projections suggest upwards of half of small businesses are at risk depending on how long COVID-19 restrictions continue. While other industry leaders privately fear thirty-three percent of the food and beverage businesses that survived March’s shutdown will likely not be able to weather a very dark winter.

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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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