‘At death’s door’: Backlash to outdoor dining ban mounts among frustrated restaurant owners.

A restaurant parklet in downtown Los Gatos, emptied following the temporary ban on outdoor dining in Santa Clara County. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

On Saturday, Dec. 5, the morning after the news broke that outdoor dining would be coming to an end in Santa Clara County in just two days (rather than in the expected weeks), a group of Los Gatos restaurant owners gathered in both frustration and strategy.

They talked about staying open in defiance of the new stay-at-home order and other forms of protest. Should they hire a lawyer and follow the lead of Southern California restaurants that have fought an outdoor dining ban with legal action? Should they stop paying sales taxes? What if they shut down en masse for a week, driving the point home about the devastation of the local restaurant industry? Being open for only takeout is like dying a slow death, one owner said, when they’re already “at death’s door.”

Many were angry and determined to fight back against what they felt was an unfair prohibition on outdoor dining. One owner compared their approach to the Boston Tea Party while others pitched a quieter kind of revolution — letting customers eat takeout food at outdoor tables without technically serving them.

More than 30 restaurant owners from Los Gatos, Saratoga, Campbell and Sunnyvale attended the in-person meeting (which this reporter listened to remotely on the phone via a meeting participant). It was organized by Los Gatos Food & Wine, a subgroup of the Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce’s executive director attended as well as the Los Gatos town attorney.

“People are trying to make tough calls right now. Should I shut down permanently until we’re allowed to operate in a month or should I stay open? And if they stay open, that means layoffs or furlough(ing) a bunch of employees. Ultimately I think that’s where people are the most upset,” Kevin Youkilis, owner of Loma Brewing Company in Los Gatos and co-chair of the Food & Wine group, said in an interview after the meeting. “What we said from day one was: If you’re going to restrict us from operating, then we need help.”

The meeting reflected a mounting frustration among local restaurateurs who understand the need for stricter public health mandates but can’t help but feel like they and their employees are being left behind. And they’re not alone in their desire to defy: Restaurateurs in Danville said they would continue serving customers outdoors, according to media reports, while unmasked diners are frequenting open dining rooms in rural Mariposa County. A group of restaurants in Contra Costa County has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the outdoor dining ban.

Some Los Gatos restaurants left tables and chairs out after the outdoor dining ban took effect. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Last Thursday evening in downtown Los Gatos, no restaurants were openly revolting by serving customers outdoors. Many had removed their outdoor tables and chairs, leaving empty parklets, while others left theirs untouched.

There were people eating to-go food and drinking beer and wine out of plastic cups outside of several businesses. The Santa Clara County Public Health Department said that this is still considered outdoor dining and is in violation of the health order. While “the county does try an education first approach, restaurants that don’t follow the health order are subject to fines,” a media representative wrote in an email.

During the Dec. 5 meeting, owners expressed frustration that traditional advocacy channels, such as meetings with top Santa Clara County officials, including County Executive Jeff Smith, have amounted to what feels like “lip service” and little understanding of the impact of health restrictions on struggling restaurants. They said they wanted more data on the risk of transmission related to outdoor dining, especially as compared to other businesses that are still allowed to operate at lower capacity, such as retail stores. They’re heartened to see a small business loan program taking shape at the county level but are wary of the red tape and anxious for more immediate relief, such as deferment on property taxes or rent forgiveness.

“People are just trying to fight for their employees and fight for the lives of their businesses,” Youkilis said. “I don’t know if there is going to be a legal battle but I’d imagine there has to be something … if we don’t get any help or relief.”

Angelo Heropolous, owner of Hero Ranch Kitchen in Saratoga, said his restaurant wouldn’t be serving customers in the outdoor dining area — which he spent more than $65,000 to build, with cabanas, dividers and personal protective equipment (PPE) for his employees.

“We’re not going to go against the grain and open up,” he said. “But we want the system to be constructive, to be pro-business.”

Customers dine at Teleferic Barcelona in Palo Alto in June, when restaurants were first granted permission to operate outdoors. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Heropolous attributed restaurants’ “urge to defy” to confusion and little to no direct communication from local public health officials after months of frequently changing mandates. It didn’t help that until this week, the jurisdictions on either side of Santa Clara County — San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, where some of these restaurants’ workers live — still allowed outdoor dining. (On Wednesday, the Bay Area’s ICU capacity dropped below 15%, which triggeres the regional stay-at-home order that these counties had not yet implemented.)

“The premise behind all of this is the safety and wellbeing of the community. But when you implement something like this and you don’t do it consistently or give more of an explanation, that’s when people get mad,” communication said.

Instead of a Tea Party-esque revolution, a more constructive approach, Heropolous said, is to demand open lines of communication between local government and restaurants. He suggested forming a Santa Clara County restaurant coalition that would regularly meet with county officials.

Diners on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 10, 2020, prior to the current outdoor dining restrictions in Santa Clara County. (Photo by Olivia Treynor)

“I’m staying positive and I’m there to support our leadership. I just feel like they need to lean on the small businesses for communication,” Heropolous said. “That’s going to yield them more favorable results. It’s that lack of communication that causes that angst and anger.”

He said the night before the outdoor dining ban officially took effect in Santa Clara County, his restaurant was packed. Every socially distanced table in that $65,000 space was full.

“I think people know that if they don’t support us, a lot these businesses are going to go away,” Heropolous said. “We offer the only sense of normal. If you lose that, it becomes pretty dismal.”

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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