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November 28, 2020

County still weeks away from opening restaurants for dine-in service

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Though some rural counties are allowing restaurants to open for dine-in service, Santa Cruz County officials are still several days away from giving their restaurateurs the green light.

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That’s according to county spokesman Jason Hoppin, who on Tuesday said testing and contact tracing capacity still needs to be ramped up in order for the county to meet state requirements to advance further into the second phase of the so-called “Resilience Roadmap.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday released a lengthy document on how restaurants could reopen at a reduced capacity for dine-in service. It requires eateries to, among other things, increase disinfecting routines, enforce strict social distancing guidelines and provide additional protection, training and symptom screening for their employees.

Hoppin said restaurants interested in reopening should study this document and ready their so-called “Workplace Specific Plan” as the county works toward meeting the requirements for the local variance.

In order for the county to receive that designation, it must prove several things, including that it has “flattened the curve,” can effectively protect its essential workers, has a large hospital bed capacity and can provide temporary housing for those who cannot self-isolate at home.

Hoppin said the county has made progress on most items on the checklist but must still increase its testing capacity above 400 tests per day and hire 42 contact tracers, who will be tasked with locating and talking with the patients, assisting in isolating them and identifying people with whom the patients have been in close contact with. It is closing in on both numbers, Hoppin said. 

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel said at Thursday’s press conference that it would be roughly four weeks before the county meets those requirements.

The county will pursue the variance when it meets the requirements, Hoppin said.

“We’re trying to move in that direction to get them open,” he said. “We believe we’ll get there, possibly, a bit ahead of our neighbors.”

Even if the county meets those requirements and allows restaurants to reopen for dine-in service, it is still unknown how many people will walk through their doors while Covid-19 is still a threat. A recent poll conducted by Emerson College found that just 35 percent of diners would be comfortable eating inside of a restaurant even with some social distancing requirements.

That underscores the current volatility of the industry, which in California has mostly shifted to pick-up orders since the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect in March.

“It’s not just going to be the rules, it’s going to be the confidence of people wanting to go out,” Hoppin said.

Several restaurateurs in Watsonville said they have been bombarded with clients, mostly young people, asking when they will eventually reopen. Most were confident their customers would visit their establishment if they were allowed to open.

Their biggest hurdles to reopening, they said, would be meeting the guidelines, training their staff and the hidden costs with small items such as masks, gloves and disposable menus.

“All of those small things add up for us,” said Andrea Saavedra, manager at The Farm House restaurant on Green Valley Road. “Small business owners have been left with that bill.” 

Slice Project co-owner Brando Sencion said business has been up and down during the pandemic, as his Main Street pizzeria has offered pickup orders of whole pies and craft beer. Sencion said he would not immediately open when the rules are relaxed, and is instead focusing his efforts on their budding takeout service.

“I think we’re doing fine right now,” he said. “You might say we’re taking a very slow approach, but I think we’re going to be OK with what we’re doing.”

Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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