Marin County restaurants advised to reduce number of indoor dining customers

Marin County restaurants are being advised to immediately reduce indoor dining from 50% to 25% of occupancy. 

That's due to surging COVID-19 case numbers that could threaten the county's status.    

On average, Marin County was seeing about 9 new cases daily, but during the past week, that rate more than doubled.

"We're all seeing a very clear second wave emerging," said Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis, addressing the Marin County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Such spikes, in the Bay Area and across the state, are causing health departments to freeze or reverse some of their reopening progress.

"If Dr. Willis thinks that's a good idea, we're happy to do that, go back to 25 percent, as long as we can stay there," said Peter Schumacher, owner of the Buckeye Roadhouse Restaurant in Mill Valley. "Anything to keep from going to purple tier again, that would be just terrible." 

California's purple tier bans all indoor dining.

Wednesday night, the Buckeye was bustling, both indoors and outside on its patio.

"I feel perfectly safe with the distancing even though we are inside," said Scott Tucker, celebrating his 60th birthday at his family's favorite restaurant.

"With what's happening, I'll probably be eating out less than I normally would, but at places where I feel safe, I will," said his companion Heather Tucker.

Marin has been at 50% indoor dining capacity for only a few weeks.

The difference between 25 and 50% is not dramatic in most establishments, because the need to keep guests six feet apart actually dictates the layout and how many people can be served.

"There have been several super-spreader events described from restaurants," said Dr. WIllis, explaining how indoor dining contributes to coronavirus spread.

Research reveals exposure when people linger at their tables and remove masks to eat and drink.

"If the ventilation is poor and there are many people gathered indoors, one case can lead to twenty other cases, just from one seating at a restaurant," said Willis.

Food service workers also have the highest COVID-19 rates both nationally and in Marin County.

"Our servers are going to the tables with masks on but the people at the tables, they don't have masks on," said Carlo Farina, co-owner of San Rafael Joe's Restaurant in downtown San Rafael.

During the window in which he could serve additional people indoors, Farina opted not to, out of caution. 

"We have a lot of older customers, and we needed to keep them healthy and happy, so we decided to stay at 25 percent," he explained.

Restaurants that scale back may try to shift more customers outdoors, challenging during cold or wet weather.

"We probably won't be dining out very much. We've been talking about that," said Allison Bainbridge, seated under a heat lamp at Buckeye on a 50-degree evening. "It's hard to get heaters and tent canopies, so we're a little concerned about it.."

But Marin County eateries hope, by adjusting now they avoid a worse fate later.

San Francisco, for example, is electing to ban all indoor dining again beginning Friday, forcing restaurant layoffs and possible closures heading into the holiday season.

"It's a little scary and if we have to shut-down again, it will be detrimental," said Schumacher. "I actually couldn't sleep last night thinking about San Francisco closing, it's hard."