Outdoor seating areas on Shattuck Ave just north of University Avenue in downtown Berkeley. Starting on Dec. 7 through at least Jan. 4, all outdoor dining will be banned. Photo: Pete Rosos

The city of Berkeley and five Bay Area counties announced a new shelter-in-place order on Friday that would impose new restrictions on businesses and restaurants, including shutting down outdoor dining through at least Jan. 4. Local health officials made the decision to not wait until available ICU beds dropped below 15% in the region. The order will take effect at 12:01 a.m., Monday, Dec. 7.

Diners, restaurant employees, and owners weighed in during the last days of outdoor dining in Berkeley about the impact of the order on their lives.

With new outdoor dining ban, it’s back to takeout again

On Thursday, a crew of construction workers gathered during their lunch break at the wooden tables and benches outside Taco and Co. in Southside Berkeley’s Durant Square, a narrow courtyard shared by seven other restaurants.

“This is where we’ve been coming every day,” said Jonathan Manzano, a worker with B12 Drywall who has been working on a student housing project in the neighborhood for weeks.

“Where are we supposed to eat?” Manzano asked. The company’s employees are staying at a hotel while they work on the project, so they don’t have the opportunity to make their own meals. Nearby Durant Square has been a convenient lunch spot for months.

This group of B12 Drywall workers has been dining at Durant Square food court in Southside Berkeley while working on a nearby project. They wonder where they’ll be able to eat their lunch when outdoor dining is banned. Photo: Pete Rosos

Restaurant workers are resigned to shutting down again

The December outdoor dining ban is just the latest in a long list of alternating directives that restaurants have received since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdoor dining shut down in March, re-opened in June and shut down again in July before it was reinstated a few days later. Indoor dining got the green light in October but was shut down again in November due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. One more shutdown? Restaurant employees said they could handle whatever restrictions the city throws at them.

“It’s the same as always. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. What can I do about it?” said Robert Lopez while flipping burgers at Bongo Burger on Center Street in downtown Berkeley. Lopez’s hours have been cut — he now only works three or four days a week — and it’s been hard for him to support his family. “We’re short on money all the time. We can handle a few days, even a few months, but after four more months, that’s going to be it,” Lopez said between calling out orders.

“It’s beyond that. We’ve already been affected enough. It’s not going to be worse than it’s been,” said Eric Kaedi, an employee at Daryoush, a Persian restaurant, also on Center Street. On Thursday, the tables inside Daryoush were all set with silverware, napkins and glasses, but the restaurant was empty.

“People are still scared. 95% of our orders are to-go,” Kaedi said. “Whether there is indoor or outdoor dining doesn’t matter as much because we still have our to-go orders.”

Bongo Burger cook Robert Lopez hands over a takeout order. Lopez said  he will continue to work as best as he can despite the ever-changing restrictions on restaurants during the pandemic. Photo: Pete Rosos

Still, outdoor dining can help draw people in. Tucked away in a courtyard off of Euclid Avenue in Northside, La Val’s Pizza and La Burrita usually serve students at UC Berkeley during a typical year. Their shared patio has been a boon during this difficult time.

“As long as the students aren’t here, business is going to be slow,” said Juan Guevera, who has worked at La Burrita for two years. “But when outdoor seating opened up, we saw some families coming with their kids from the neighborhood getting pizzas. It’s not enough, but it’s helped us to survive this period and pay our staff,” said Izat Eliyan, who owns La Val’s.

Halting outdoor dining takes away an important draw for restaurants struggling to scrape by with only a fraction of Cal students living on campus this year. The latest order raises ongoing questions for business owners and diners about the trade-offs between the economic pains of closing businesses and the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“I understand that stopping outdoor dining would reduce the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, a lot of the staff work paycheck to paycheck and they need money to support their families and to pay rent,” said Eliyan, who has had to cut half of his employees since the start of the pandemic, including some student employees who left voluntarily.

Tate Swindell (left) and Robert Kaufman sit at a table outside of La Val’s on Northside Berkeley. Photo: Ally Markovich

Outside in the courtyard on Saturday, diners wearing coats and scarves debated the trade-offs of the latest order. “I’m worried about the economic impact of closing outdoor dining,” said Tate Swindell, holding a slice of pizza from La Val’s.

“You can’t do anything about the economic impact. Follow the science, man,” replied Robert Kaufman, seated diagonally across from Swindell. “When people start throwing themselves off of buildings and there’s anarchy in the streets because of economic impact, then we’ll start talking about reopening businesses.”

Then there’s the question of whether the outdoor dining ban will change people’s behavior at all. “People are still going to get food to-go and sit outside somewhere else,” Swindell said.

Brandon Imbs-Auf-Ingabritzen from Fremont has lunch with his friend Kapena Spring from Santa Rosa in the back of Spring’s pickup truck. Photo: Pete Rosos

On Thursday afternoon, a pair of friends ate lunch from Bongo Burger seated in the back of a pick-up truck parked on Center Street. “There may not be a table you can sit at, but you can still get food and sit on the curb — or sit on a pick-up truck for that matter,” said Brandon Imbes-Auf-Ingabritzen.

For now, people in the restaurant business are making it work, stay-at-home order or not. Guevera’s hours at La Burrita have been cut by a fourth since March, but he is earning enough to get by in the meantime, grateful that his boss prioritized fellow employees who had families. He knows that won’t last forever, though. “If it does pass that year mark in March, money is going to start running out. I’ll probably try to find another job,” Guevera said.

Eliyan’s playing the long game, too. He is hoping for government aid to push his business through to the summer. “Honestly, we are accumulating debt right now with rent that is not fully paid. We’re hoping there will be some kind of a stimulus package that can help us pay our rent and pay our staff,” Eliyan said. “I don’t think anything will change until the summer. That is our goal— to survive until summer of 2021.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...