State issues approval for county's health order, outdoor dining

Andrew Yee/Special to the Town Crier
Los Altos' downtown street closures are in effect during the holiday weekend.

Updated July 7: After initially rejecting Santa Clara County's latest health order, the state issued an approval on Tuesday morning (July 7).

Santa Clara has been added to the state's list of counties that have received an approval for a variance. This means businesses such as gyms and hair and nail salons can reopen beginning Monday, and larger gatherings – groups of 20 people indoors and 60 people outdoors – with masks and proper social distancing are allowed. Outdoor dining can also continue in the county.

“Without the state granting the variance, it would be devastating to communities such as ours, which have an abundance of small businesses,” said Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins.

David Campos, a public information officer for the county, said during a briefing July 6 that the state had issued an “initial rejection” of the county’s application.

At the briefing, county officials also confirmed that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control unit had been conducting enforcement activity in parts of south Santa Clara County. Some restaurants in Morgan Hill and Gilroy were ordered to stop outdoor dining over the weekend by ABC officials, creating confusion in the county, where outdoor dining had resumed for several weeks

"The county was not informed of any of those operations in advance,” Campos said. “We cannot speak for the state.”

The approval came as a "major, major sigh of relief" for Bruins, who had been visiting restaurants over the weekend, warning them of ABC enforcements in the county.

“This was a painful experience for everybody involved,” Bruins said. “It caught everybody by surprise. Everybody was caught off guard.”

In an interview with the Town Crier on Tuesday morning, Bruins added that she would now go back to the restaurants and give them the official word. She had already told restaurants over the weekend to continue “business as usual until further notice.”

On Monday, Campos said that other counties had received permission from the state in their variance requests and that the county believes its request was valid.  

"We believe that it is safe for us to proceed along the lines that we have proposed with the new health order," Campos said. "We believe that the approach is the right strategy to keep the county safe. We believe that unless the numbers change dramatically between now and July 13 that is the right approach for us." 

An inflection point’

Despite attempting to ease certain restrictions, county health officials urged caution as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the state.

“We’re at an inflection point,” said Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s public health officer. “It’s crystal clear that COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, so we need to adapt to a new way of being, a new way of living that keeps us all safe and that lets us do some of the things that we miss, cherish and find most meaningful.”

A press release indicated that Santa Clara County had fewer cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents than any other Bay Area county. But it warned of an increase in both case counts and hospitalized patients.

As the July 4 holiday weekend approached, county officials urged residents to celebrate at home, calling gatherings with people outside of the household “potentially risky.” Santa Clara County reported 141 new coronavirus cases Monday for a total case count of 5,408 – and three additional deaths.

The new guidelines aligned with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement July 1 ordering indoor closures for Santa Clara County and 18 other counties. The state’s orders affect indoor businesses including restaurants, bars, wineries, movie theaters and museums. Such businesses, which health officials said pose a “high risk” of COVID-19 transmission, will remain closed indefinitely.

Local bar shifts to restaurant mode

Los Altos’ downtown streets were closed off though the Fourth of July weekend as part of the Open Streets program, allowing restaurants to set up tables and serve patrons outdoors.

“We’re all in this together,” said Jean Luc Kayigire, owner of Amandine Project – a restaurant and bar on First Street – after the county’s announcement Thursday. “So we just have to survive. For how long, I’m not sure.”

Kayigire launched Amandine Project last summer as primarily a cocktail bar and lounge, with a limited food menu. But with county-wide bar closures and his bar space closed off indefinitely to the public, Kayigire has had to shift to a more food-based operation and serving customers only outside. Gone are the days when people could mingle at the bar. He’s expanding his kitchen by hiring a new full-time chef.

Still, Kayigire said last week that Amandine Project’s regular income dropped approximately 75%. He is considering partnering with neighboring restaurants to do cocktail programs for them, an idea that would help a little, but not enough – perhaps adding 10% to his sales.

“It’s still bad,” Kayigire said. “Nothing will ever make us go back to what we used to have before.”

Kayigire is taking a personal financial hit to ensure that his employees are still being paid, but he is concerned for their health and safety. He checks on them every day and knows the social circle they interact with.

But customers are a different story. He doesn’t know where they’ve been. Most follow guidelines and wear a mask, but he has had to deny service to a few people who tried to enter without face coverings. Some don’t understand why food might take longer to serve, because Kayigire is only allowed to have four employees working at a time.

Kayigire said that if coronavirus cases rise in the county, he will consider closing for a couple of weeks, out of a measure of protection for his employees. He claimed he didn’t open Amandine Project to turn a profit.

Safety is first, even if it means Kayigire will have to pay employees to stay home. Despite a surge in COVID-19 cases and stringent social-distancing rules, patrons are eager to hang out downtown.

“If it is open, people will show up,” he said. “I’m shocked to see how many people come out. They want to drink, eat, come to restaurants in downtown Los Altos.”

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