Building A Better Bay Area: What will it take for restaurants to reopen once COVID-19 pandemic is over?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As retail in the Bay Area prepares to open for curbside pick-up, restaurants are looking forward to a day when they can start serving people tableside again. As we continue to look for ways to Build a Better Bay Area in the times of the coronavirus, restaurants are trying to figure out how to navigate an uncertain future.

The Blue Plate restaurant has been a fixture on San Francisco's Mission Street for more than two decades, but it hasn't had table service for nearly two months, and it may be awhile before they see a full restaurant again.

When the city ordered people to shelter-in-place, they switched to take-out.

"It was like opening a whole new restaurant. We moved all the plates - put in boxes, we've had to restructure where everything is, we had to put a ton of stuff in storage, we had to create menus that would travel well," said Cory Obenour, one of the owners of The Blue Plate.

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The restaurant has seen its business cut by about 60-percent, and that's considered "good" by current standards. When the city gives them the green light to reopen, it will likely mandate half-capacity to maintain social distance.

"I think for us to have a full staff, and be running on full cylinders, we have to have a full restaurant," said Obenour.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association says restaurants will need some time to get ready to reopen when they are finally allowed. Food needs to be ordered, staff needs to be trained on new safety measures, and bills that have been piling up for the last two months, will need to be paid.

"I know what we are concerned with in the city is trying to prevent a situation where we get into a spike in infections because we've done such an excellent job of maintaining a low caseload, said Executive Director, Laurie Thomas."

Thomas' own restaurants, Terzzo, and Rose's Café on Union Street are both closed.

While the virus may have spared the city, it hasn't spared restaurants from feeling the pain of the pandemic. Thomas says 88% of the restaurants have fewer than 40 employees. That may sound like a small number until you find out there were more than 3900 applications for restaurant permits in San Francisco last year.

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"If we can have some form of economic relief that can provide a bridge in ongoing sorts of help, financial help, then maybe it works," said Thomas.

She says the only way restaurants will survive is if the government steps in to help with tax relief, or programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, also known as PPP, that gave forgivable loans to small businesses.

"And if there are landlords that are willing to negotiate a different type of a lease model as opposed to a fixed rate when there's revenue down here, then we might be able to make it."

"We need to give these businesses a lifeline," said San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener. The Senator has introduced legislation to help restaurant owners get out of expensive leases without bankrupting them.

Senate Bill 939 would place a moratorium on commercial evictions and give restaurant owners a year to make up past due rent. It will also provide an option for restaurants to renegotiate lease terms and if the negotiation fails, it will allow the restaurant to terminate the lease.

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"So for the building owners, to me it's a choice of do you get no rent? Or do you get a reduced rent? And I think for most building owners, it is going to be better to get the reduced rents," said Senator Weiner.

Despite the sudden shock to the industry, restaurant owners are trying to stay optimistic. Looking forward to serving their customers again soon.

"Everyone's asking me when we are going to reopen. When I think the restaurant will be full again, and I think for me to say anything would be naive... I don't know," said The Blue Plate's Cory Obenour.

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