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Optimism, wariness as Napa County restaurants reopen for dine-in customers

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For two months, Napa County retail stores and restaurant dining rooms had been empty of customers. They reopened their doors Wednesday, providing Sonoma County with a vision of its future as they sprang back to life.

“It’s a beautiful day, and a beautiful life,” said Pablo Iglesias Derderian, a Chilean expat nursing a microbrewed pint at a table on the covered patio of Downtown Joe’s, in the heart of the city of Napa. “I’m so proud to be in Napa, and I’m grateful to be alive.”

Derderian’s enthusiasm was typical of Californians longing for their local towns to return to normal as coronavirus infection rates have begun to level. But Napa’s reopening brought trepidation, too, and confusion.

While Napa Valley’s winery tasting rooms remained shuttered, state-approved revisions to local public health orders sent a jolt of energy into the heart of California’s Wine Country. Napa County became the first county in the Bay Area to welcome the public back inside restaurant dining rooms and all sorts of retail stores, not just “essential” merchants, like supermarkets.

Napa County residents learned Tuesday evening that the state had approved their expanded Stage 2 variance. The announcement gave business owners little time to prepare.

“It was mentioned for a while that restaurants can open. They didn’t say we could open today,” said Mauro Pando, owner/chef of Grace’s Table, a restaurant in downtown Napa. “I was thinking that meant they were gonna give me the date, and I would come to work that day. Then they say, ‘You’re open.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what that meant. That meant now!’”

Workers at the small restaurant at Second and Franklin streets were taking measurements and moving tables Wednesday morning in preparation for lunch hour. A few diners already were eating outside at sidewalk tables. Similar scenes were occurring at a handful of other Napa restaurants, but many had yet to take advantage of the loosened regulations.

Most of the chain businesses, for example, were doing drive-thru and takeout orders only Wednesday, as they had been for weeks. Pando attributed that to a more complex chain of command, noting that he is the sole decision-maker at Grace’s Table.

Even many of the locally owned restaurants and shops were quiet Wednesday, or limited to curbside service. Some were trying to figure out timing. La Taberna, a tapas restaurant, plans to open Friday. Angele Restaurant, at the southern end of Main Street, is shooting for Saturday.

There is much to sort out before a restaurant can reintroduce seated dining. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised guidelines calls for things like 6 feet of spacing between all tables, and in kitchens and walk-in freezers; thorough disinfecting of door handles, credit card readers, phones and every other common object and surface; masks for all employees, and disposable menus and napkins.

Napa restaurants seemed to be spending a lot of time on the 6-foot rule. Grace’s Table is going from 17 interior tables to six, while adding a few outside. Downtown Joe’s owner Joe Peatman said he’s at 40% of normal capacity.

Restaurants have known about Newsom’s revision for more than a week, but not all of them had the staff to get set up, and some had remained busy with takeout and delivery.

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Peatman, though, said he was “very prepared.” Downtown Joe’s might have been the last restaurant in Napa to close. It stayed open for a few days even after Napa County’s original stay-at-home order went into effect March 20. Peatman said he has spent much of the past three weeks texting his county supervisor, Alfredo Pedroza, and his banker, as he attempted to secure a PPP loan.

“We kept on grinding away at our to-go business, trying to grow, trying to survive, trying to keep staff interested, customers engaged,” Peatman said. “That’s a big part of it, too. My customer base are loyal. But if they don’t get to be loyal for two months, they might not be loyal anymore.”

So it was no surprise that Downtown Joe’s was one of the first eateries to welcome customers Wednesday.

The return to indoor dining was another sharp turn for Napa restaurants, many of which had shifted to a new way of business. Sweetie Pies Bakery, in the city’s historic Hatt Building, had always split its product among retail, wholesale and wedding cakes. Owner Toni Chiappetta said her wholesale business has fallen by 80%, and her wedding cake orders dried up entirely. She adapted by preparing dinners for takeout, starting with chicken pot pies.

“It saved my ass,” Chiappetta said.

She also added a new cake, decorated to represent a roll of white toilet paper in exquisite detail. Now Sweetie Pies must veer again. It’s down to four usable tables inside, so Chiappetta is getting high-tops to stick outside for customers to stand around.

As the restaurateurs bustled about, one feeling was unanimous: They were happy to have employees back. Pando said he was forced to lay off all but two of his 35 employees during the shutdown; he has brought back about 20 this week. Chiappetta has restored 22 of 28 jobs, and is currently hiring. Peatman employed 40 at Downtown Joe’s, a crew that he had to reduce to six — him, his daughter, two managers and two cooks who have been with him for more than 25 years. Now he has built back up to 30 people.

Businesses are still measuring the economic impact of two months of stalled or nonexistent revenue. One of the few shops open Wednesday along the Jefferson Street commercial corridor in Napa, a more modest area of town, was Sportabout, which sells athletic goods from a strip mall.

Shortly after a customer walked out with a new pair of shoes, owner Tom Steinman said he has run into a wall of technical difficulties while trying to secure his PPP loan, and doesn’t have it yet. He was dealing with a different glitch Wednesday: Google Maps still marked Sportabout as closed. Meanwhile, his business has really been no business at all for two months.

The net result is that Steinman isn’t sure he can retire when his lease ends in November or December, as he has planned for months. “I can’t hardly sell anything, so I’m worried I’ll get stuck with a lot of inventory,” he said.

The news from Napa was a mixed signal for Sonoma County restaurateurs — a sign that California is moving forward, but a reminder that it isn’t happening evenly. Josh Silvers, who owns Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, said his restaurant has no outdoor facilities and has been devastated by the shutdown.

“We’re dying on the vine here,” said Silvers, who has owned the restaurant with his wife Regina for the past 11 years.

He said he has trained staff, provided personal protective equipment and is currently reorganizing his dining area for fewer seated customers, probably about 70 total. (Jackson’s seated 150 before the pandemic.) But, he added, reopening a restaurant, like any other business, requires proper scheduling and planning. Silvers and other restaurant owners would like a definitive timeline from Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase.

All signs point to Sonoma County restaurants opening soon, perhaps this weekend. But the regulations will be different in Sonoma County. Mase has already said Sonoma County will clear restaurants for outdoor seating first, and won’t go indoors until the data recommends it.

Napa County is not a clear analog to Sonoma County, despite the shared culture, geography and grape-dominant economy, Mase said. She noted Wednesday that Napa County has registered 92 cases of the novel coronavirus. Sonoma has logged 411.

“The less people that are together at one time in one place, the less transmission there is,” she said. “And we have a much greater population, and we have our urban areas, which I think are probably more crowded and populated than that of Napa.”

Still, Napa will be something of a petri dish for at least a few days, the only place in the greater Bay Area where a family can sit down for a restaurant meal. It’s a blessing for business owners there, and a huge challenge.

“Somebody said earlier, ‘Can you live like this?’ ” said Pando, the Grace’s Table chef. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t have a choice not to.’ I have to make it work. This is not about me complaining about (business capacity at 25 percent). This is about me keeping the place safe.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post

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