San Francisco’s long-awaited reopening was short-lived.
For seven weeks, we cozied up to the bar at our favorite watering holes, organized group dinners at restaurants indoors and ventured unmasked into ice cream shops, gyms and even the office.
All this while the delta variant continued to spread and the hospitalization rates of COVID-19 patients started to rise, particularly among The City’s unvaccinated population.
City officials announced an indoor mask mandate on Monday. It doesn’t call for capacity restrictions, but customers must wear face coverings at all times inside unless they are actively eating or drinking.
Just as they were starting to see a path forward out of the pandemic, small businesses will again be some of the most affected by the mandate and what it signals about the potential risks of contracting COVID-19.
“This is not devastating, but we have suffered so much and this setback is really disheartening and deflating, and it’s tough,” said Ben Bleiman, a partner at Tonic Nightlife Group and president of the SF Bar Owner Alliance.
Many local merchants support the mask mandate and respect the public health challenges posed by the latest variant surge.
A survey of Golden Gate Restaurant Association members found 66 percent were in favor of a mandate, while a statement from the trade group voiced support for the idea of a citywide vaccination requirement should it be deemed necessary to stop spread.
That said, merchants are wary of past shutdowns and adamant that closure cannot be considered as an option to curb the spread.
“The City and businesses cannot afford another shutdown,” said Jonah Buffa, owner of Fellow Barber on Valencia Street. “The City needs to let people safely operate, but we can’t close down.”
Even since San Francisco’s reopening on June 15, many restaurants and bars have been self-imposing health measures in an effort to protect staff and customers alike.
Most employees continued to wear masks, and businesses often maintained more stringent sanitation procedures, along with some social distancing. The Bar Owner Alliance went so far as to announce that many of its 500 members would require proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before allowing patrons to enter their establishments.
Bleiman said the decision to support a vaccine requirement was obvious to the majority of members once the science became clear that fully inoculated individuals could transmit the virus and numerous bar owners reported employees had contracted COVID-19.
He also said the overwhelming majority of customers were grateful for the added protection, save for a small group of protesters who gathered outside of his bar in the Mission, Dr. Teeth, over the weekend.
Bleiman dismissed them as ineffectual.
“This wasn’t about us trying to change hearts and minds,” Bleiman said. “That’s nice if that happens. But really we said, ‘This is what we need to do to protect our staff and our families.’”
But some business owners did express worry that the imposition of an indoor, citywide mask mandate could sway customer behavior and slow the already-difficult process of ramping up operations, a reality that’s already started as the number of delta cases has steadily increased.
David Nayfeld, co-owner of Che Fico Alimentari and Che Fico restaurants, said some customers had begun to opt for outdoor dining over indoor tables. Buffa said at least half of his customers were displaying more sensitivity to the rise of the variant, postponing appointments until this passes.
According to Bleiman, August is traditionally tough for bars and restaurants, so it’s impossible to determine exactly how much of the slowdown is attributed to nervousness around the coronavirus or ordinary economic patterns.
Some commercial corridors might be better suited than others to adapt to this shift, particularly those where there has been investment in parklets and other outdoor dining options.
“Throughout the past year, Shared Spaces has been a lifeline for restaurants, bars, cafes and retail businesses, and it is clear that maintaining those outdoor dining options is essential to the industries’ continued survival,” a statement from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association said.
Regardless of whether merchants were able to construct parklets, they agree closure is not an option, especially if businesses are told to shut their doors on behalf of people voluntarily forgoing the vaccine.
“That’s a line too far,” Bleiman said. “If we feel like that is what we’re being asked to do, then it is going to be a very serious revolt. We’re going to flip our lids.”
Ask a small business owner what’s at stake, and the answer is simple: the economic recovery of San Francisco.
“We’re the biggest employer in The City,” said Buffa, who is currently only able to employ about half of his pre-pandemic workforce. “Small businesses, and the people who work there and make it a part of their lives, they’re the people who make up this city and make it work every day.”
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