The outdoor area at Donkey & Goat winery in Berkeley set up with socially distanced picnic tables, planters and wine barrels.
Donkey & Goat had just finished preparing its 2,000-square foot outdoor space to start outside wine tastings when the ban was announced. Photo: Sari Blum

Last Friday’s abrupt announcement by the Alameda County Public Health Department to immediately suspend outdoor dining has left many local business owners frustrated and angry about the general lack of clear and consistent messaging from city, county and state officials.

“We spent weeks and weeks and thousands and thousands of dollars in reconceiving what we do in a way that is one, outside, and two, safe,” said Tracey Brandt, co-owner of Donkey & Goat winery (1340 Fifth St.) that she runs with her husband, Jared. A popular urban winery that before the pandemic was a tasting destination for Bay Area wine lovers, Donkey & Goat shuttered in mid-March when the shelter-in-place order began. Brandt had been using the downtime to brainstorm different strategies for how to eventually reopen, using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Berkeley Public Health department.

When it was announced that restaurants could resume outdoor service starting June 19, Brandt consulted Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development and Visit Berkeley, the city’s official tourism department, on how to do so safely and made several modifications to the property. The Brandts were fortunate that Donkey & Goat already had a 2,000-square foot outdoor space, but they then spent time and money to improve it. They placed physical barriers between tables, stocked up on PPE for staff and customer use, bought new wine flight boards to reduce contact between staff and customers, and upgraded the bathroom to make it as touchless as possible.

“We used to have a tasting room for people to pop inside and stand next to each other and have a guided experience from less than a foot away,” said Brandt. “It took a Herculean effort to retool what we do.”

The Brandts had planned to reopen for outside wine tasting July 18, and this past Saturday, had invited friends and family to Donkey & Goat for a ticketed soft-run of the new set up. On Friday night, Alameda County announced the California Department of Public Health had issued the ban, as it was one of two California counties that had not been issued a variance, or permission, by the state to reopen for sit-down dining. But it was still unclear if Berkeley, which has its own city health department, would be under the same measures as the rest of Alameda County, or if the city had applied for its own variance.

“It’s outrageous in my opinion what happened. This is not a safety issue, this is a bureaucratic failure.” — Tracey Brandt

On Saturday morning, Brandt was texting with Mayor Jesse Arreguín and communicating with other city officials to find out if she could go forward with the event. Arreguín said the city would try to secure a variance and would not necessarily follow the county.

“I get a different story for every single city official that I speak with,” she said. “Everybody has a different understanding and no one has a full understanding and, you know, it’s just my livelihood in the balance.”

Things were still up in the air by the time the event was scheduled to start, so she was able to host the soft opening, but by that afternoon, Brandt received a text that the city would follow the county’s lead, and outdoor service was once more suspended.

“It’s outrageous in my opinion what happened,” she said. “This is not a safety issue, this is a bureaucratic failure.”

Brandt expressed sympathy for the news that some Alameda County cities like Oakland, Dublin, Hayward and Livermore would not be enforcing the outdoor dining ban.

“The decimation to small businesses cannot be overstated,” she said. “Alameda County didn’t file the paperwork [for variance] knowing damn well it was needed.”

A need for a COVID-19 information czar

Warren Spicer, owner of Way Station Brew (2120 Dwight Way), has been similarly frustrated by the fractured channels of information that he has to piece together himself to ensure he’s in compliance with the latest health and safety measures at his cafe.

“It’s a challenge to find all the information in one place,” he said. “In fact, you won’t.”

For the most part, Spicer relies on information put out by Berkeley’s Division of Public Health. He finds the individual guidelines easy enough to understand, follow and distribute to customers, but he doesn’t know how complete or up-to-date the information is, and which measures ought to be prioritized. What’s more, Spicer is rarely alerted to changes as they happen. He most often finds out about revisions from friends, customers or local news outlets, rather than directly from the city or Alameda County.

“I would love it if there were some information czar on this,” he said, someone at the city or county level acting as the singular, go-to source on all things related to COVID-19 for bar, cafe and restaurant owners.

An aerial view of the back patio at Way Station Brew in Berkeley. Photo: Way Station Brew
The back patio at Way Station Brew in Berkeley. Photo: Way Station Brew

Spicer had not made quite as many upgrades to the Way Station outdoor dining space as Brandt had done at Donkey & Goat, but he still spent money on refinishing the patio tables and advertising its outdoor seating.

The cafe had been just keeping afloat on takeout orders and a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan when outdoor service resumed in June. “Absolutely it was a boost having outdoor service,” said Spicer.

After three weeks of outdoor dining, business at the cafe was finally picking up as regulars returned and new customers came in for coffee and pastries in the morning, and burgers and beers in the evening. “There was a definite uptick starting last Wednesday.”

Then the announcement came, and Spicer shut down the back patio and brought the tables and chair set up at the front of the cafe inside. Losing outdoor service has been a disappointment, and Spicer is frustrated by the lack of clear and consistent communication from city, county and state. But he is just as disappointed in fellow business owners when he hears about uneven compliance and scofflaws.

“I want to comply, I want to keep staff and myself as safe as possible,” he said. “I don’t want to hear from customers ‘a place over there is doing XYZ.’ I want to know that we’re all doing our part.” — Warren Spicer

“I want to comply, I want to keep staff and myself as safe as possible,” he said. “I don’t want to hear from customers ‘a place over there is doing XYZ.’ I want to know that we’re all doing our part.”

Business owners aren’t the only ones bothered by inconsistent messaging. In May, Mayor Arreguín and Councilmember Sophie Hahn drafted a proposal to allow bars, restaurants and cafes to occupy streets, sidewalks, parks, medians, parking lots and other public spaces for open air dining. Given the current ban, the proposal, though generally well-received, is not presently in effect.

“This latest information is frustrating for small restaurants and food shops who relied on previous guidance allowing outdoor dining,” said Councilmember Hahn in a statement to Nosh. “Hopefully this interruption will be very brief, and I encourage our restaurants and other small businesses to keep moving forward with planning for outdoor dining and commerce when it is safe.”

Thinking one step ahead

Yoshika Hedberg, co-owner and general manager of Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya (2451 Shattuck Ave.), a Japanese restaurant on the outskirts of downtown Berkeley, hopes open-air dining will return in such an expansive capacity. Pre-pandemic, the interior of Fish & Bird could accommodate nearly 80 diners at a time. Its current permitted outdoor space seats about 10 diners, but Hedberg would like to be able to serve at least 40 at outside tables set on the sidewalk.

Even though the takeout menu at Fish & Bird is identical to the in-house menu, Hedberg definitely saw business increase once the restaurant was able to seat customers outside.

“It has to do with experience,” she said, “getting away from wherever you’re sheltering in place and being able to relax and be in the sun.”

Hedberg was not expecting outdoor dining to come to such a sudden and unexpected end when a friend called her Saturday morning with the news. Hedberg understands that the state changed guidelines first and then Alameda County issued their decision after, but she and her partners were still annoyed to be left scrambling on such short notice.

Two customers sitting under an umbrella on Fish & Bird's small patio space hold up drinks in a toast. Photo: Fish & Bird
Customers enjoy a meal on Fish & Bird’s small patio space before the outdoor dining ban. Photo: Fish & Bird
Customers enjoy a meal on Fish & Bird’s small patio space before the outdoor dining ban. Photo: Fish & Bird

“We just purchased our heaters, more tables are on order, we had a floor map of outdoor tables awaiting city approval, we had been working on special outdoor menus,” she said.

In addition, Hedberg had also installed touchless paper towel dispensers, stocked up on sanitizer for customers and staff, and replaced the oshibori, the hot wet towel service, with disposable paper napkins. Customers dining outside had the option to request their order served in disposable containers, at no extra charge.

The timing of the shutdown has been bad for every restaurant, but unlike long-established businesses, Hedberg doesn’t have a pool of regulars just yet. Fish & Bird had been open for only six weeks when the shelter-in-place mandate ended sit-down service. “People were only just starting to get to know us,” said Hedberg.

Front of mind for Hedberg is building up a customer base before winter, and an almost certain second wave of coronavirus. “This is really important to us,” she said. “I’m really hopeful the city and county will work with the state to let us open again.”

When outdoor dining is allowed again, it would be easier, according to Hedberg, if there were some appointed official who could both advise on and approve of proper seating arrangements. Someone up-to-date on all regulations, who could perform a site visit, suggest how Hedberg could make the most use of public space without negatively impacting pedestrians, and then also approve the agreed upon layout so Fish & Bird could get back to service as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“I think it’s really important for us to be thinking ahead, what might come down next and how we will work with that,” she said. “And obviously there is no roadmap. We can only try.”

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.