Vallejo’s Mare Island Ferry Taproom featured in SF Chronicle: Forget dining inside, going out to bars

Forget dining inside, going out to bars: California’s new surge restrictions could last for a long while

Cynthia Dizikes and Alexei Koseff July 2, 2020
Megan Keeton (right) sterilizes the patio furniture at the Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom in Vallejo.
Megan Keeton (right) sterilizes the patio furniture at the Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom in Vallejo.Photo: Photos by Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

New state restrictions on bars and restaurants in counties with the worst virus-control numbers are supposed to expire after three weeks. But few public health experts believe the bans on indoor gatherings and outdoor drinking will drop cases low enough for these activities to resume any time soon.

The dramatic move is the state’s attempt to rein in runaway case totals that have inched ever higher since some counties have begun allowing businesses to reopen and people have gathered more at home and outdoors.

But to really lower California’s surge in coronavirus infections — now at 246,735 — people need to curtail gatherings with friends and family and be more vigilant about wearing masks, particularly over the Fourth of July weekend, said UC Berkeley infectious disease expert Dr. John Swartzberg.

“This curve is going up very fast and it is going to take more than a nudge to bring it down again,” Swartzberg said, referring to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to shut down several recently reopened sectors that the state has identified as riskiest for transmission of the virus.

The order requires restaurants, wineries, tasting rooms, family entertainment centers, movie theaters, museums, zoos and cardrooms to halt indoor operations for at least three weeks. Outdoor operations, such as restaurant patios, are still allowed. But Newsom also ordered the closure of all bars and breweries in the 19 counties, including those outdoors, unless they also serve sit-down meals. The new restrictions will impact nearly 75% of California’s population of 39.5 million people.

The California Department of Public Health did not respond to questions about what would happen in three weeks and whether counties would be free to reopen all of those businesses.

At his news briefing Thursday, Newsom said he was confident the new restrictions will help keep new cases in check.

“We tempered the growth of the curve,” he said. “We need to do that again.”

Those assurances didn’t make it any easier, however, for businesses that had to roll back reopenings.

Beth Stine, Art Stine, and Serena Salvan eat lunch on the rooftop patio at Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom.
Beth Stine, Art Stine, and Serena Salvan eat lunch on the rooftop patio at Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

At the Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom in Vallejo, business was finally returning to some semblance of normal this summer. People had returned to drink and dine indoors and out. Nearly all of the 44-person staff had been rehired.

But then, on Wednesday, co-owner Kent Fortner’s phone lit up with messages: Solano County, where the tap room is, was among the 19 counties in the shutdown order, as were Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties in the Bay Area.

“It was really a kick in the teeth,” Fortner said. “As a business owner I can manage a downturn. It is uncertainty that kills a business. This came with no notice whatsoever, three days before a holiday weekend.”

Short of shutting down, closing bars and banning indoor gatherings in restaurants can be particularly effective as an isolated measure, said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and health policy expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Tsai and other researchers at Harvard and Google analyzed anonymized cell phone data from the first part of the year and found that closing bars and restaurants was the best way to keep people from venturing out of their homes — better than bans on large gatherings, school closures and shuttering other nonessential businesses.

“What California is doing makes sense,” Tsai said. “It is not that bars and restaurants are inherently dangerous but the nature of social interactions and socializing that come part and parcel with a restaurant or bar increases opportunities for the virus to spread.”

Coronavirus infections throughout the Bay Area grew to 27,158 Thursday with 590 deaths, county data showed. Single-day spikes in Bay Area counties included 178 new cases in Santa Clara, 228 in Alameda and 78 in Contra Costa.

Across California, the number of infections rose to 246,594 Thursday, with 6,261 deaths.

As of Wednesday, California joined 12 other states classified as “orange” on the risk scale developed by Harvard and a collaboration of scientists. Orange indicates escalating community spread. Stay-at-home orders may be necessary, unless it’s possible to increase testing and tracing. Three states, Arizona, Florida and South Carolina, were classified as “red,” meaning that community spread was unchecked and stay-at-home orders were necessary.

Newsom has pushed back on the notion that the state reopened too quickly. During press briefings, he has repeatedly asserted that his administration merely developed guidelines for how to safely operate different sectors of the economy, leaving it up to counties to determine a timeline for when they would resume based on local conditions.

On Thursday, he said his strategy for the counties that had been forced to toggle back their reopenings was “more targeted education,” rather than punitive measures.

He suggested that the surge in new cases was a failure of individual behavior, not public policy.

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned over the course of the last number of months,” Newsom told reporters, “is so often the conversation and the questions were about when, not how. We need to have a deeper conversation about how to safely reopen.”

The governor pointed to a public awareness campaign that his administration launched Thursday, with ads encouraging people to wear masks set to go up on television, radio, social media and billboards.

Phil Lang and Steven Morgan collect their beers before heading out onto the patio at Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom in Vallejo.
Phil Lang and Steven Morgan collect their beers before heading out onto the patio at Mare Island Brewing Co. Ferry Taproom in Vallejo. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

The governor’s order applies to counties that have spent at least three consecutive days on a state watch list because of their high rate of new infections, positive tests or increasing hospitalizations. Outside of the Bay Area, the affected counties include Fresno, Glenn, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Merced, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Stanislaus, Tulare and Ventura.

Some of the counties affected by the governor’s order had not reopened indoor dining or drinking, including Santa Clara.

On Thursday, Santa Clara County issued a new health order allowing some activities to resume, including hair and nail services, gyms, and small gatherings if social distancing protocols are in place. The order also requires employers to immediately report coronavirus cases on their staff for all employees who were at work within two days of having symptoms or of being tested. Employers must report the case within four hours to the public health department.

Also this week, the Contra Costa Health Services department encouraged people to avoid gatherings of friends and family, wear masks, and seek testing even if they had no symptoms.

Solano County had moved more quickly than other counties to reopen, allowing indoor dining in May and reopening retail stores, tattoo parlors, museums and nail salons, among other businesses. The county has drafted a new order to reflect the governor’s restrictions.

However, county health officer Dr. Bela Matyas said Thursday that he was not optimistic the new rules would help drop the rising number of cases in his county. Matyas said that most of the increases can be attributed to people getting together at home with their friends and families. While a handful of outbreaks have been linked to work sites, he said Solano has not seen any cases tied to restaurants or bars.

“We don’t have any evidence that this is how the disease is spreading in our county,” Matyas said. “People find it easy to blame the business sector, but at least in our county, it is what we are doing at home that is causing the spread.”

For now, Fortner has closed the indoor dining area at the taproom, which is also a restaurant. But, he said, he worries about what the future holds for his small business and others.

“I want my kids to go to school in the fall and I want to be part of the solution instead of the problem,” he said. “But the lack of clarity, transparency and advanced notice is very frustrating.”

Cynthia Dizikes and Alexei Koseff are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.