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Los Altos restaurants wonder about survival amid another COVID-19 surge

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Olivia Treynor/Town Crier File Photo
Restaurant owners worry about the effect that cooler weather will have on business amid another surge in COVID-19 cases.

To a casual passerby, the early Friday evening dinner rush in downtown Los Altos seemed and sounded normal – the clanging of silverware, the line at Satura Cakes, the students hanging outside Starbucks. But other observations were less auspicious: empty tables along State Street, people bundling up in the chilly night and the sight of precipitation on the ground.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its ninth month ravaging the country with little sign of slowing, those scenes are raising anxiety across Los Altos’ tight-knit restaurant community. So far during the pandemic, temperatures have been relatively warm and the rain has stayed away, allowing for restaurants to set up tables outdoors and patrons to feel comfortable sitting outside.

But inevitably, the weather has cooled significantly this month. More rain is in the forecast this week, and likely through next spring.

In group messaging chats, restaurant owners send stressful texts to each other. They worry about the weather. They gripe about the delay in directives for putting up outdoor dining tents. They wonder if nobody coming to sit in their parklets last week was a harbinger of a harsh winter ahead.

“Restaurants are nervous,” said Larry Chu Jr., who manages Chef Chu’s on San Antonio Road. “There’s so much anxiety in these group chats.”

The county moved back into purple, “widespread,” tier in the state’s COVID-19 framework Tuesday, a move that didn’t come as a surprise to restaurant owners. Some, such as Chef Chu’s, never opened indoors because they feared this exact scenario. Indoor dining had been open with restrictions since mid-October, when the county was in the orange, “moderate,” tier.

“A situation where we open up and then close again – you need consistency in the restaurant business,” Chu Jr. said.

Another owner, Lars Smith of State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria near the corner of Fourth and State streets, said he redesigned the restaurant to be takeout-oriented and didn’t want to adjust for indoor dining.

“It doesn’t take a lot to read the tea leaves about what’s going to happen in the Bay Area in the next few weeks,” Smith said.

‘An unstable future’

What’s happening might be the worst-case outcome for most businesses, but especially local restaurants: a steep rise in cases since October leading to restrictions on indoor activity, cooler and rainy weather rendering outdoor dining precarious and general uncertainty about what might happen next.

“The honest truth is, I don’t know,” said county public health officer Dr. Sara Cody when asked Friday if she would support implementing a second local shelter-in-place order. “Similar to March, we may need to take additional restrictions quickly.”

Additional restrictions due to another spike in COVID-19 cases combined with unfavorable weather might knock out restaurants already on the brink of extinction. In a report submitted prior to the Nov. 10 Los Altos City Council meeting, city staff acknowledged that between 40 and 60 percent of restaurants may see permanent closures.

“We must acknowledge that COVID-19 has impacted our local businesses significantly and we still do not know the extent to which it will continue to impact businesses,” city staff wrote. “Existing food and beverage establishments are overwhelmed and struggling just to stay open.”

The Los Altos Chamber of Commerce also presented a gloomy forecast in a letter written by chamber president Kim Mosley to the council, noting that businesses have exhausted their Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“We are looking at an unstable future as our County positivity numbers are starting to creep back up,” Mosley wrote. “With winter weather setting in and no guidelines from the County regarding acceptable outdoor canopies and shelters from the wind, they are wondering how on earth they can survive this.”

Some frustration

The chamber’s letter, signed by 11 local restaurants, addressed an item on the council’s agenda last week to discuss a ban on certain single-use plastics, such as straws. The item drew widespread pushback from restaurant owners. While they agreed with the premise of using environmentally friendly, compostable materials, they expressed concern with the increase in cost of finding those materials, especially during a pandemic.

After the other four council members noted their opposition to moving forward with the item, Mayor Jan Pepper tabled it for a future meeting.

“Twelve months from now, we don’t know where we’re going to be,” said Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post on Main Street, during public comment. “We don’t know who’s going to be open or if we’re going to make it. To have that cost burden added would be detrimental to our small, independent restaurants.”

Two of Los Altos’ neighboring cities, Mountain View and Palo Alto, have extended street closures at Castro Street and California Avenue, respectively, for the foreseeable future to enable restaurants to open up more outdoor seating during the pandemic.

Los Altos, meanwhile, had a street closure program over the summer that was popular with both restaurants and residents. But the city shuttered it at the end of September, opting instead to allow restaurants to construct parklets as some retail stores voiced concerns over the closures.

“It’s frustrating to look at what (other cities) have done for outdoor dining,” Smith said. “It was a no-brainer for them. We never had a chance to do street closures seven days a week.”

Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins told the Town Crier Monday that the city is working with the Santa Clara County Fire District to ensure that directives for amenities such as heat lamps and overhead coverings comply with state code and fire department regulations.

“We’re trying to move quickly,” Bruins said, acknowledging that restaurants are in a “very unsettling” situation.

In a statement to the Town Crier, Anthony Carnesecca, Los Altos’ economic development coordinator, said the city “will be ready with resources and support” with the county’s shift back into more restrictive tiers.

“Since the start of the pandemic, the city has taken a cautious approach to coronavirus,” Carnesecca said. “Our businesses will be ready for all scenarios as we head into this unique holiday season.”

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