Indoor dining poses challenges for businesses and workers alike

As restrictions on indoor dining are eased in certain Bay Area counties, some establishments are hoping the modified rules will allow them to stay afloat. For months, business has waned and many restaurants have closed permanently.

But some restaurant workers whose jobs have changed dramatically say they don’t feel safe with the shift to indoor work, and feel trapped because they probably can’t collect unemployment if they quit. Others said they are just happy to have work and a source of income. 

Restaurants across the country, which make up a significant percentage of small businesses, have not been bailed out or received widespread government aid. Workers also don’t get hazard pay, and often, make much less money as fewer patrons eat out.

Santa Clara County is scheduled to allow modified indoor dining starting next Tuesday. And last week, San Francisco opened up indoor dining at 25% capacity, following Contra Costa County, where diners could eat inside since the end of last month.

Maria Moreno, a community organizer at the Bay Area Restaurant Opportunity Center, said that more than half of workers she has spoken with feel unsafe in their workplace during coronavirus, especially because employers have often not notified employees that staff members have tested positive.

This was the case at the restaurant where Emma Allen-Landwehr worked in the Bay Area. She didn't want to name it, but did say that she stopped working at the restaurant due to safety concerns. The establishment cut back on staff, including the entire janitorial team, which left full responsibility to clean on the “ghost staff” who still had their jobs.

“That meant, sort of, that the cleaning got deprioritized,” she said. “I had personal observations of seeing insect activity, and, you know, obvious lack of cleanliness when it came to surfaces, brought that up to management, and got basically told that my concerns had no bearing.”

She said that after she quit, her former colleagues told her that multiple kitchen workers tested positive, but management did not notify staff who it was, or when they tested positive.

“It comes back to this issue of transparency, where us, as workers need to be aware of the risks that we are engaging with at work,” she said. “But then also, I think we need to be aware of, when people test positive, what's the protocol? And I think there's a lack of clarity.”

Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, helped Mayor London Breed and the city of San Francisco with their indoor dining safety protocols, which include a self-checklist restaurants must review on an individual basis. 

“I'm not a doctor,” she said. “But if everybody can follow these guidelines, I am hopeful that we will be able to see how it goes.”

Thomas said that she feels the city is taking a cautious approach to indoor dining, and that it is a necessary move to preserve business.

“We're just gonna have to see what happens, and we're gonna have to try,” she said. “And if it doesn't work, and if we go backwards, we will shut the city back down. And nobody wants that to happen.”

She said that if workers feel unsafe with indoor dining, they should not work.

“If you don't want to work, there are many people right now that want to work,” she said. “So everybody should be given a choice.”

Generally, if workers quit their jobs, they can’t collect unemployment, said labor lawyer and former EDD director Michael Bernick. They may be able to make an appeal for safety during coronavirus, but the appeal will be decided on an individual basis by an EDD claims administrator.

“You need to show, in a sense, that a reasonable person wouldn't feel safe,” Bernick said. “That the employer either hasn't complied with the requirements that this county has set out for indoor dining, or other factors are involved that make the environment unsafe for a reasonable person.”

When Brennan Anderson, a bartender in Roseville, applied for unemployment benefits in March, he was unable to receive benefits he was eligible for for four months. He said that because he could not rely on unemployment funds, he went back to work at his restaurant earlier than he felt comfortable.

“I'm risking my son's life by going to work, and working in a restaurant, meeting new people all the time—no telling what, if they have COVID or not,” he said. “So it’s just very, very hurtful that I didn't get anything, and then I probably won't.” 

Business owners who have worked hard to build careers in the service industry face tough decisions about their businesses, and how to balance safety with their employees’ livelihoods during a pandemic. One such owner, Aaronette King, a chef and owner of Eat Play Events and Catering, said that she doesn’t see how small restaurants can survive without indoor dining. 

Still, she thinks the necessarily limited capacity of indoor dining will pose challenges. 

“I think the indoor dining at 25% opening up is still going to be a real struggle for a lot of people,” she said. “Because if you're a small business, and maybe your dining room only seats like 50, then like, what are you really opening up for two tables? I still think outside dining is still going to be kind of mandatory in order for business to stay viable.”

A restaurant manager in Contra Costa County, who did not want to be identified because of a company policy prohibiting workers from speaking to media, said that he does not feel good about the safety of indoor dining, even when he and his coworkers follow all mandated safety protocols. His restaurant is opening indoor dining this week. 

“We're exposing ourselves every day,” he said. “We're serving plates, we're serving drinks. You know, people aren't wearing masks, and it's impossible to enforce.”

He said that in his role as a manager, he understands that the restaurant will be open at the fullest possible capacity at any given time, to make the most money. He also said that he and his employees rely on the company-provided healthcare, which he lost for a few weeks when the restaurant temporarily shut down. 

“Restaurants should be the last thing to open,” he said. “They should have been—takeout, delivery, it's fine. Outdoor dining is fine. But I think indoor dining should not be, in my opinion, available until we have rapid testing, or a vaccine available.”

Caroline Hart is a writer and producer with KTVU. She covers unemployment, inequality, food issues, breaking news, and much more. She can be reached at