After a busy weekend of outdoor dining, officials and restaurant owners implore residents to remain vigilant against spreading COVID-19 and its even more contagious mutations while shopping local.

“All businesses, regardless of what we serve and what we do, we have to play responsibly,” said Manuel Martinez, a Redwood City restaurateur, noting the same responsibility extends to customers encouraged to visit the local shops.

As the owner of three restaurants — LV Mar and La Viga in Redwood City and Palo Alto’s San Agus — Martinez said service over the weekend was like night and day. After receiving news Monday that Gov. Gavin Newsom was lifting the shelter order, permitting outdoor dining again, the chef and his team rallied to open by Friday night.

Despite concerns potential customers would shy away from dining out, Martinez said the weekend surpassed his expectations. Like his restaurants, nearly all neighboring eateries had outdoor seating and appeared to be at capacity.

“It was the oxygen we were needing,” he said.

At Milagros on the corner of Middlefield Road and Main Street, general manager Sean Parker said he was happy to see both the sun and customers out over the weekend. Like Martinez, Parker feared turnout could be low, but the restaurant was busy Friday through Sunday after waiting out the rain.

The lockdown forced the restaurant to work with a skeleton crew and each change in restrictions makes rehiring employees increasingly challenging, he said. But a team of 30 people was “scraped together” to serve customers willing to honor long wait times for a table.

“It’s our life blood,” said Parker. “We have to have people here dining. There’s no way we’d survive on just take out.”

Rules and risks

Parker first heard rumors the governor was going to lift the shelter order the Sunday before the announcement was formally made — Monday, Jan. 26. Frustrated but appreciative of the last-minute change, Parker said new variants have also scared employees away.

Some customers have also remained apprehensive of dining out, said Parker, noting to-go sales have kept pace with lockdown numbers. On Broadway, Martinez said he’s noticed customers more closely adhere to previously enforced rules such as wearing a mask when a staff member is at the table.

But gatherings and table jumping are still an issue particularly around closing time, said Martinez. While shops are routinely monitored including by a county enforcement task force, Martinez said he’d like to see officials enforce the rules on the public more as well.

Lucas Wilder, the assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department overseeing the city’s street closure program launched last June, said in an email staff are deployed to monitor the street closures and have been trained to disperse any gatherings.

Staff are tasked with approaching rule violators from a distance to request compliance and have also been provided small signs allowing them to issue a “friendly quick flash” of direction. From the department’s observation, he said multiple factors have greatly limited crowds for better or for worse.

“While we have good numbers, I wouldn’t say we have ‘crowds,’” said Wilder. “With all of the on-and-off rain, just coming out of the stay-at-home order and it still being dark pretty early we’re not seeing concerning issues arise.”

Street closure program

Aiming to assist struggling merchants, Redwood City established a street closure last June and has made modifications to the program since, including reopening Main Street to vehicles due to traffic concerns.

During the most recent lockdown, the program was suspended completely, allowing easier access for food delivery services, according to staff. Mid-January, the City Council then voted to extend the program until Dec. 31, anticipating the lockdown would eventually be lifted and the need for outdoor dining to continue well into the year.

With the extension, Broadway between Middlefield Road and Main Street will be closed to vehicle traffic, allowing cars to cut through on Jefferson Avenue. Theatre Way is also closed to vehicles. Parklets, protected seating areas in parking stalls, have also been distributed across downtown Redwood City through the program.

Despite losing roughly half of the restaurant’s outdoor dining capacity when Main Street was reopened, Parker said he was thankful to learn the city extended the program. Like its sister restaurant in San Carlos, Town, the establishment is applying for a permanent parklet.

“That was huge,” said Parker. “We need it. We don’t know when we’ll get back into indoor dining this year.”

Unknown hurdles

But poor weather conditions are still a concern for Parker and Martinez. Until indoor dining is permitted, restaurants are left vulnerable to the wind and rain while limited by options to winterize outdoor dining areas.

The city allows for temporary comfort elements like tents, canopies, lighting and outdoor heating units but fire risks make combining overhead protection with gas heated sources difficult, if not impossible.

Despite the relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, concern remains for the potential to spread the virus, particularly with new more contagious variants in the region. The county has routinely emphasized that the virus is still widespread in the region, reminding residents to wear a mask, social distance and avoid large gatherings.

Mayor Diane Howard, having dined out with her husband twice over the weekend, said she was pleased to see merchants and patrons both abiding by COVID-19 health guidelines.

Addressing concerns some visiting the local shops may flout the rules, Howard noted merchants also have the power to prevent customers from becoming too intoxicated or reckless. Ultimately, she expressed confidence in the community’s ability to safely shop and dine local.

“Maybe when it’s taken away from you a bit you respect it more,” said Howard.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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