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San Diego restaurants, shops poised to reopen but who will be ready this week?

Rocky Sheehan, food and beverage manager for Draft in Mission Beach and Josh Bricker, a buser at Cannonball, measure the distance between tables as they make preparations to reopen Draft at Belmont Park in Mission Beach.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Businesses are hiring back staff and rearranging their layouts for 6-foot physical distancing

Restaurants and retail shops, which for the last couple of months have been shut down or experimenting with takeout and curbside sales, are now hastily reconfiguring their venues and hiring back workers as they prepare to reopen — but in many cases, at much-reduced volumes.

With the Tuesday approval by San Diego County supervisors of a reopening plan for dine-in service and retail shopping, business owners say they are taking steps to resume operations, some as soon as this week, but not all are prepared to reopen quite so rapidly. Workers need to be rehired and trained under new sanitation protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the interiors of stores and restaurants have to be redesigned to allow for adequate social distancing, menus need to be retooled and inventory purchased.

The three sit-down restaurants at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, though, are ready to restart as soon as the state of California OK’s San Diego’s request for the accelerated Stage 2 reopening the economy. The county submitted its request late Tuesday evening and and had hoped to get a reply from Sacramento by early Wednesday. By Wednesday afternoon, however, the county was still awaiting an answer, and it was possible it could be another day before the green light is given, a county spokesman said.

The oceanfront Draft and Beach House restaurants at Belmont Park will likely open first, and the rooftop dining venue, Cannonball, will be ready to welcome diners just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, said Dario De Luca, president of Pacifica Enterprises Inc, the operator of Belmont Park. Because Pacifica had already been doing takeout service at its eateries, it has staff on board prepared to transition to in-person dining, and they are being trained on what will be a rigorous and regular sanitizing process, he said.

“Draft has a large outdoor patio on the boardwalk with roll-up garage doors, so we can do even more than the required social distancing and the same thing at the Beach House because the venue is so large,” De Luca said. “The beautiful thing about the park is we have a lot of space and queuing room, so signs will say it’s on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I anticipate because we’re outdoors and we have the fresh air, that we will hit whatever our capacity is allowed to be once we reopen.”

Together, the three venues can seat as many as 1,260, but after generous spacing between tables is implemented, the likely maximum capacity will be around 800, estimates Belmont Park General Manager Steve Thomas.

Meanwhile, Matteo Cattaneo, the owner of the popular Buona Forchetta restaurants, which have been doing a brisk takeout business in South Park, Coronado, Liberty Station and Encinitas, says he is not prepared to reopen by this weekend. June 1, he said, is a more reasonable target.

Cattaneo and other local restaurateurs say they expect capacity at smaller dining venues to be slashed by as much as 75 percent while others with larger outdoor seating areas, estimate the impact to be closer to 30 percent less dining space.

“Right now, we are reaching out to all employees,” said Cattaneo, who noted that his eateries will pivot to a reservation system to avoid long, congested queues. “Some employees aren’t comfortable coming back to work. It’s not like it was before. So we will see what they all say when they get back to us.”

Tuesday evening, the county Department of Environmental Health notified restaurant operators of what steps they will be required to take before reopening. Among the measures are: conducting thermal or temperature scans of employees daily, spacing all tables 6 feet apart or, if unmovable, installing a barrier between tables; requiring diners to wear facial coverings when not seated at their table; and disinfecting restrooms and “high contact touch points” frequently. Tableside food preparation and self-serve buffets and salad bars are prohibited.

The county’s speedier reopening plans have come as a bit of a shock to several San Diego retail shop owners, who thought the recent curbside pick-up stage would last until June.

Just days ago, large retail plazas rolled out new curbside-only signage and designed pickup plans after county officials announced a limited retail reopening in mid-May.

Carmel Valley’s shopping center, One Paseo, said Tuesday that in addition to signage asking shoppers to wear masks and practice social distancing, its plan is to “have hand-sanitizing stations throughout One Paseo, added security to make sure people are practicing social distancing and 6 feet of spacing between common area tables and seating.” Brian Lewis, senior vice president for One Paseo, said “each retailer is being diligent regarding the number of guests in-store and the sanitization of high touch areas.”

Other San Diego malls have been mum on plans to reopen, as some confusion remains about whether they are included in the Stage 2 retail reopening. A San Diego County spokesman said he could not clarify for certain if malls would be included, but did not see any indication in the county documents that they wouldn’t open with the rest of retail.

Bernard Lebel, who owns California Sock Company, a tenant of the Fashion Valley mall, said retailers have not received any word from Simon Malls about reopening plans.

“If we don’t know when we can open, it’s very hard to prepare,” Lebel said. “It’s very hard to get people on a schedule when we don’t know what hours we’re going to be open.”

Lebel said it will only take him three days or less to open all three of his brick-and-mortar stores across San Diego County. He’s just waiting on the final word to act.

Smaller retail stores, such as South Park’s The Book Catapult and Thread & Seed in Bankers Hill, were caught off guard by the news.

“Am I prepared? Absolutely not,” said Melanie Michaud, owner of Thread & Seed. “Would I just open the store next week? No. I’d start gradually and build up to be fully operational by June 1, if it’s allowed.”

Just days ago, Michaud started tearing up her storage room, remodeling the space to fit more boxes and operate more like an e-commerce warehouse. Jennifer Powell, the co-owner of The Book Catapult, is similarly going through a store remodel and needs time to set up shop.

"But first we would have to decide if we wanted to open and in what capacity,” Powell said. “Frankly, this is rather surprising to hear.”

Likewise, many restaurants, including the Cohn Restaurant Group, are being more deliberate in their reopening plans, while still others were racing Tuesday to complete their preparations — and shopping — in time to open their doors right away to diners. Phil Pace of Phil’s BBQ has rearranged the tables in his Rancho Bernardo location, placed stickers on the floor designating the prescribed path of travel and has sequestered the self-service soda operation, which will now be manned by an employee.

And David Contreras Curiel, co-owner of Karina’s restaurant group, which includes Saffron Thai in Mission Hills, said his team was spending Tuesday shopping for food in anticipation of a rapid opening.

“We’ve been rehiring as much staff as we can so we’re pretty much ready to go,” Curiel said. “If they tell us to open tomorrow, we are ready. We will be taking out chairs so that tables are 6 feet apart. The positive thing is some of our restaurants have up to three different patios so it’s perfect for the summertime.”

Married restaurateurs Roddy and Aaron Browning of Vista are ready to open the dining rooms for their two restaurants in Oceanside and Vista at a moment’s notice. They’ve owned The Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen in Oceanside for nine years and this week they reopened their recently shuttered TownHall Public House in downtown Vista.

Both restaurants are offering takeout family-style meal service, but in the meantime the Brownings have moved all tables 6 feet apart, posted signs, moved seating outside, trained staff to wash their hands every 30 minutes and work in masks and placed hand sanitizer stations in multiple locations.

Yet even when they open their two dining rooms, Aaron Browning said she doesn’t expect a lot of customers to flood in for dine-in service, so they’ll keep their marketing focus on takeout.

“How many people are going to want to come to a restaurant and have to wear a mask they pull down every time they stick a fork in their mouth?” she said. “We think most people will feel more comfortable taking their meals to go.”

While Buona Forchetta’s Cattaneo acknowledges, as do his fellow restaurateurs, that operating at lower volumes is not financially sustainable for a protracted period of time, he sees something of a silver lining in the social distancing configurations that will be required.

“It’s a good chance for people to enjoy a better meal. We won’t have the volumes anymore, so let’s redesign and see how this new restaurant experience is. Nobody is going to be one foot from you, no one is going to bang up against you anymore. Ah, it will be relaxing.”

Updates:

3:45 PM, May. 20, 2020: The story was updated Wednesday afternoon to note that the county had not yet heard from the state on its request to reopen shops and restaurants for in-person dining.


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