Santa Clara County business owners push to open indoors
Sushi Confidential, with locations in Campbell and downtown San Jose’s San Pedro Square, remains open for for outdoor dining. Courtesy of Randy Musterer.

    With smoke and ash making outdoor operations difficult, a coalition of business and community leaders are demanding Santa Clara County set guidelines to reopen indoors.

    Last week the county moved into the lower-risk red tier of state reopening guidelines, which paved the way for more businesses to start serving customers indoors. But in Santa Clara County, restaurateurs and estheticians didn’t make the list.

    “Indoor dining is a controlled environment that can accommodate advanced sanitation and safety protocols,” said Randy Musterer, the owner of Sushi Confidential. “We know that indoor dining at a reduced capacity has worked in other places without significant increases in spreading COVID-19.”

    Musterer joined a coalition of 15 chambers of commerce and more than 50 faith, business and political representatives who on Sept. 14 called on Santa Clara County to find ways to reopen the economy.

    Nearly 70% of companies in Silicon Valley are classified as small businesses and represent the majority of economically challenged employees. Due to the pandemic, nearly 30% of these businesses have permanently closed or are on the verge of closing, according to the coalition.

    Indoor dining requires people to take off masks while eating or drinking, which has made county, state and federal health officials wary of letting bars and restaurant resume business as usual.

    “Indoor activities where members of the public are not wearing a face covering thus create a significantly higher risk of spreading COVID-19,” according to a statement by county health officials. “Indoor dining necessarily involves removal of face coverings indoors which makes it higher risk.”

    County officials have not said how low case rates need to be for restaurants to operate indoors.

    “I’m not aware that there’s any threshold,” said County Counsel James Williams on Sept. 8. “Here’s the basic principal: We need to have our case rates go down.”

    Williams said the county put out its guidelines based on “risk regardless of sector” and based its guidelines on broader scientific findings that found operating outdoors is safer than indoors.

    But Musterer and others said Santa Clara County needs to give more concrete guidelines.

    “What we don’t have any clarity on is what would be the expectations in addition to what we’re currently doing for outside dining once we move indoors,” Musterer said. “Do they want us to replace our air filtration system to some sort of HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter? Are they going to want us to keep all of our doors open — front, back, side doors — to create airflow?”

    Restaurant owners aren’t alone in their demands.

    Maya Mansour, the owner of Original Facial Bar in Cupertino and Willow Glen, said the county has kept up the red tape for her business while letting other personal care services move forward with indoor operations.

    “As of today … Santa Clara County is the only county out of all 58 counties in California that has prevented estheticians from working both indoors and outdoors,” said Mansour.

    She said health officers did not consider guidelines from the State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, which has released guidelines for estheticians to operate inside and outside.

    While no health officials were represented in the coalition, several political and faith leaders voiced support.

    San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis said local authorities need to step out of the way for businesses.

    “Government can’t be all about saying no because there’s no amount of government-run programs that will help (the) unemployed stay in their homes,” Khamis said. “There’s no additional funds coming in from the federal government to help prop up businesses or keep people in their homes.”

    Although local and state health officials have said there is still a substantial risk of spreading the coronavirus while in the red tier, business owners from the restaurant and personal care industries remained confident in their health and sanitization training.

    Musterer, who worked in biotech and cancer research before opening Sushi Confidential, said health officials should be teaching businesses how to adapt rather than telling them to remain closed indoors.

    “I’ve worked with very infectious diseases in my biotech career,” he said, “and when you’re trying to come up with a vaccine or come up with some sort of cure for a cancer, you don’t just say, ‘oh no, it’s too infectious we’re not going to work with it.’ No, you develop different strategies and guidelines to work with that particular infectious disease.”

    Mark Turner, the president and CEO of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, said the county risks losing businesses if guidelines aren’t loosened.

    “When the pandemic first hit and we received the shelter-in-place order, the initial goals were to flatten the curve, ensure there were enough ventilators and keep from overwhelming the health system,” Turner said. “We did that. We accomplished it. We flattened the curve. Now let’s not flatten our business community by continually applying such restrictive standards that there’s no hope in moving forward.”

    Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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