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By Tim Hunt

Struggling restaurants suffer another hit

Uploaded: Dec 10, 2020

Thank goodness that some of the Bay Area’s public health officers think for themselves when it comes to the COVID-19 virus.
San Mateo County’s Dr. Scott Morrow broke with other Bay Area counties and did not order a lockdown this week. Contra Costa, Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco counties all locked down a variety of businesses and activities this week, but Morrow kept them open.
He wrote in a blog, "I share the intent of the State and my Bay Area colleagues, which is, during this surge, you should be staying at home as much as possible. I also deeply understand how people can look at the same issue, and seemingly the same set of facts and come to completely different conclusions... Just because one has the legal authority to do something, doesn’t mean one has to use it, or that using it is the best course of action. What I believed back in May, and what I believe now, is the power and authority to control this pandemic lies primarily in your hands, not mine."
He's got it right. And the authorities and His Highness Gov. Gavin Newsom have shredded whatever credibility they started with last March. Newsom’s latest statewide order, if followed, eliminates holiday gatherings and other Christmas and Hannukah traditions. Whether the public will comply or law enforcement will enforce the edicts is an open question.
The hypocrisy has been shone in Los Angeles County where one restaurant owner was giving final checks to her employees after outside dining was closed while a catering crew was setting up under a tent a few steps away to cater for an entertainment crew on a filming assignment.
Fortunately, there’s a skeptical judge in L.A. who ordered the health department to produce evidence that outdoor dining created a dangerous spread of the virus. The California Restaurant Association won that case on Wednesday when the health department failed to cite any evidence.
The ban has a huge impact locally on restaurants. I reached out to Ray Bartolomucci, the owner of Strizzi’s and Rigatoni’s (six restaurants in six East Bay cities including downtown Pleasanton and downtown Livermore as well as Dublin).
Ray has been in the restaurant business for 45 years and the outdoor shutdown is frustrating. He pointed out that restaurants, unlike big box retailers or the mall, are experts at sanitizing because they must be to keep their food and staff safe. Strizzi’s had just finished building an outdoor deck on St. Mary St. to expand its tables.
Based on news reports, he said they figured they would get three good weeks of businesses before a potential ban late in the month based on news reports. Instead, the health officials jumped ahead of what the governor’s metrics required.
How important is the holiday season? Ray said the six weeks from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31 are the best six weeks of the year for the industry between catering, office Christmas parties, lunches and dinners in the restaurant. Two fine dining establishments (Barone’s and McNamara’s) that are only open for dinner 11 months a year annually open for lunches in the holiday season because lunch pencils in that month.
For Ray, the shutdown puts a damper on a year of innovation. He laid off half of his 120 employees when the lockdown took effect in March and furloughed others. Fortunately, the restaurants already had a robust takeout business that served them well.
When indoor dining was allowed several weeks ago, he brought back other staff who were still interested (others had moved out-of-state or moved to a different vocation). When we spoke Wednesday afternoon, he was trying to figure out what to do with his employees with the lockdown set to continue through Jan. 4.
With the help of his creative management team, they’ve added options such as heat-and-serve individually packaged meals that can be frozen. He said regular customers are stocking up. They’ve also proven popular with Costco stores in Hayward and Livermore that have ordered 250 at a time for their employees as well as Stanford Health ValleyCare.
His team also offered turkey dinners for Thanksgiving that were well received and plan something similar for Christmas. They’ve been working on to-go recipes for entrees that he never would have considered pre-pandemic.
And his regular customers have been stepping up—he sold a record number of gift cards last week. He also praised both the cities of Pleasanton and Livermore for going the extra mile to help restaurants during the pandemic.
Ray summed it up saying he prays for wisdom daily as he strives to keep his staff and employees safe.