Sonoma County restaurants get guidelines to reopen

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As soon as he heard the news Tuesday, Kevin Cronin got out his tape measure and started moving tables around.

“I knew it was inevitable we’d have to change our model a little, and we will,” said Cronin, owner of Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Santa Rosa. “We’ll make it fun, and good. People want to eat-in restaurants again. I know I do.”

When, exactly, people might be able to sit down to eat in Sonoma County restaurants remains an open question. But Gov. Gavin Newsom gave restaurateurs hope Tuesday, unveiling guidelines that eateries must meet before they are allowed to set their tables for the first time since he imposed a statewide stay-at-home order two months ago.

The 12-page document does not provide a clear timetable for restaurants to reopen their dining rooms. Instead, it lays out a series of steps that must be completed to ensure the pandemic is under control and the safety of customers and employees is protected. Unlike some other state governors, Newsom refrained from setting rigid guidelines to reduce restaurants’ capacity, but instead gave them flexibility to modify dining rooms to create 6  eet of distance between customers at different tables and employees.

“One size does not fit all,” Newsom said Tuesday in a video news conference. “Each restaurant is different and distinct.”

Only seven rural counties — Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Lassen, Nevada, Placer and Shasta — have met the state’s criteria to reopen restaurant dining rooms and other public activity envisioned in Stage 2 of California’s roadmap to recovery from the havoc of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sonoma County is at least two weeks away — and possibly even longer — from winning state approval to reopen dining rooms and a broader swath of the local economy.

For Sonoma County to be granted a state review for reopening, it must have recorded 50 or fewer new cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days; on Tuesday, it had 105 cases during that period. The county’s public health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, is also concerned that some skilled nursing homes do not have a 14-day supply of protective equipment and adequate stocks of sanitizer, another of the official criteria.

Most telling, for a county to move deeper into Stage 2, it must have recorded zero COVID-19 deaths in the last 14 days. With Sonoma County reporting its fourth COVID death Monday, it’s clear the county is close to two weeks away, at least, from allowing full-service dining.

Mase said Sonoma County has not applied for a variance to state standards, sounding doubtful it would meet approval with the county falling short of key thresholds.

“The fact that the state has a strict criterion of no deaths in 14 days, I would think that under that criterion, we wouldn’t be opened,” Mase said.

The open-ended timeline has Eleni Magoulas, owner of Pete’s Henny Penny in Petaluma, worried.

“You look forward to the summer months, where business starts to boom, and you rely on that income to get you through the tougher months of January-February-March,” Magoulas said. “And we get business off the freeway from people going to KOAs and campgrounds. Summer, you feel good about it. We’ve already missed a couple major holidays. We missed Mother’s Day, and we’re coming up on Memorial Day.”

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Even when all of the governor’s criteria are fulfilled, local restaurants will have many hurdles to clear before they can open their dining rooms.

The directive issued Tuesday by Newsom requires face coverings for all employees who interact with the public, disposable gloves for servers and bussers, additional protection for dishwashers (who are exposed to more airborne particles) and daily temperature readings for everyone working in the establishment.

“I think about my workers,” said Tina Jackson, co-owner of El Coqui, a Puerto Rican restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa. “Customers have to eat, so they’ll take their masks off. How are we going to let them be around our staff?”

The governor’s rules call for thorough cleaning throughout the restaurant, including the sanitization of every object and surface that might be touched by more than one person, such as door handles, light switches, credit card readers, phones and toilets. Menus must be disposable, cutlery must be wrapped in napkins before set on tables. Tablecloths must be removed after each seating and carried away in a sealed bag.

Restaurants are encouraged to open windows and purchase air purifiers.

Some of the most challenging regulations concern distancing. The directive requires restaurants to arrange available tables and chairs in a way that allows workers and customers to remain 6 feet apart (or to install Plexiglas barriers if that is impossible), a tricky proposition in a business traditionally built on intimacy.

“Frankly, my restaurant’s small,” Jackson said. “If they tell me I have to space people out 6 feet apart, I probably will not take customers in. And really focus on continuing to do takeout. Because we’re getting by with it.”

The 6-foot rule will be even more difficult to navigate in the crowded, chaotic spaces of restaurant kitchens, but is enforceable there, too.

“It will be really hard for them not to get close to each other,” Magoulas said. “They have their stations, and for the most part they shouldn’t have to cross each other. But there will moments where it’s very difficult.”

The new guidelines do not apply to wineries or brewpubs that don’t offer sit-down meals. They will remain closed for all but take-out.

Asked whether Sonoma County would simply follow the state’s rules for dine-in restaurants, Mase said she would have to review them before making a determination.

Cronin said it would take some work to bring his dining room up to the new code, but it could be done. He was preparing “squads” of employees in defined shifts, so only that squad is sent home if one member tests positive for the coronavirus. Rosso’s cooking line would have to shrink from five prep chefs to three.

Cronin said he misses the immediate feedback from serving customers directly, rather than sending them home with food. Despite the hurdles ahead, and the uncertainty of when exactly he can reopen, he was feeling a sense of overwhelming relief that he may soon be able to bring back the employees he had to lay off in March.

“I think Governor Newsom has done a great job,” Cronin said. “We could have been New York. But this is gonna be a tough one.”

Jackson said El Coqui had just ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of new furniture when the county stay-at-home order landed. It sits in boxes as she and her partner have converted the restaurant dining room into a small takeout assembly factory. Still, El Coqui has been busy delivering to county and emergency offices. Jackson remains resolute.

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. That’s all you can do,” she sang in the quiet voice of Dory, the ditzy companion in Disney’s “Finding Nemo.”

Jackson hopes customers can eventually make their way back to El Coqui, just as Nemo found his way home.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or

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