‘We don’t know what to do’: San Jose restaurants prepare to close in-person dining
Jose Luis Perez, owner of Mendoza's Taqueria in San Jose, is pictured in this file photo.

    Surrounded by patio heaters and tables filled with patrons dining on Mexican food, a three-person mariachi band played under the tent canopy outside Mendoza’s Taqueria in San Jose on Sunday – the last day of the year restaurants could seat people under Santa Clara County’s most recent health order.

    “I’m going to miss watching them play here,” said owner Jose Luis Perez in Spanish. “Come Monday, a lot of customers will be gone because there will be no more atmosphere to accompany the food.”

    Perez built a tent canopy as wide as the East Side restaurant itself when San Jose lawmakers voted in May to allow restaurants and other businesses shuttered by the shelter-in-place order due to COVID-19 to operate outdoors.

    Graffiti sprayed on the tent canopy of Mendoza’s Taqueria. Photo by Vicente Vera.

    Along with the mariachi band, Perez allowed a vendor to sell toys, books and plush animals inside the tent to families with children, many of whom chased each other around the area.

    But now indoor and outdoor dining must stop until at least Jan. 4 as part of a new shelter-in-place order that begins at 10 p.m. Sunday.

    “The (outdoor setup) was really expensive, it came out to more than $5,000,” Perez said. “Now we’re not going to make anything.”

    He said he’s removing the tarp from the canopy’s frame during the restriction period so that people don’t spray graffiti on it, as the tarp has been tagged twice in recent weeks.

    But the biggest setback he faces from the new restrictions is cutting his staff of five people to only two.

    Though Mendoza’s Taqueria will be open for take-out orders, Perez said it won’t be enough to sustain his business for long.

    “Some will come and get to-go — some won’t, they don’t like to eat it at home. They like to eat the food in the moment, as hot as they can get it,” he said. “I can definitely understand taking precautions during the pandemic, but that’s what we’ve been doing. We shouldn’t be asked to close.”

    Santa Clara County health officials joined four other counties on Dec. 4 to accelerate a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom for regions whose ICU capacity falls below 15%.

    Although Santa Clara County’s ICU capacity is at 17% as of Dec. 5, Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody adopted the measures to curb an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. She joined San Francisco, Contra Costa, Marin and Alameda counties in doing so.

    Under the order, barbershops, nail salons, personal care services, movie theaters, museums, bars and wineries must close. It begins at 10 p.m. on Dec. 6 until Jan. 4. Restaurants can only open for deliveries and takeout.

    As of Dec. 5, Santa Clara County has reported 38,388 COVID-19 cases and 503 deaths.

    Jose Guitron, owner of La Perla Taqueria in East San Jose, said the implications of the new health order means he’ll have to let go of three employees. He only has six people on staff now.

    “The restaurant was barely getting by when we opened outside,” he said in Spanish. “People rarely come for take-out, so when customers do come by, I’d offer them the tables outside.”

    Guitron said he spent around $2,000 to build the outdoor seating area – an enclosed canopy tent surrounded by a white picket fence with eight tables.

    Owner of La Perla Taqueria, Jose Guitron said he spent about $2,000 on outdoor seating arrangements at his restaurant in San Jose. Photo by Vicente Vera.

    The tent kept La Perla Taqueria in business throughout the fall, he said, but after 28 years in business it might not survive without financial support.

    “I applied for federal loans and sought assistance from the county, but it really doesn’t seem like they care,” Guitron said. “Except when it comes to issuing fines. Everything is going bad, the county did wrong when they didn’t offer us any help. We don’t know what to do.”

    Health officials say closing in-person dining at Silicon Valley restaurants was unavoidable as cases skyrocket in the South Bay.

    “We feel like we have little choice but to act, and to act now,” Cody said in a Friday news conference. “We understand that these restrictions will create very difficult economic challenges and we aim to lift these restrictions as soon as we can.”

    In downtown Willow Glen, many restaurants had adapted to outdoor seating, but John’s of Willow Glen owner Antonio Carmona said his Greek eatery hasn’t seen a substantial rise in customers.

    Prior to the Dec. 4 decision to adopt the state’s new order, restaurants in Santa Clara County were allowed limited outdoor dining or take-out and delivery. No indoor dining was permitted.

    “People don’t even feel comfortable eating outside now. I mean, it’s cold and it looks like it’s going to rain,” he said. “We got like 25% of our customers back, but on Monday it’s going to be maybe like 5% or 10%.”

    Carmona said he’s most frustrated with having to lay off employees, many of whom have already been working fewer hours. He’s had to pick up the slack where day-to-day employees no longer have the time.

    “I feel bad for them. They need hours and they need to work, but I need to do some things myself because I cannot afford to pay somebody else,” he said. “I don’t know how to handle this, but I know I’ll do the best I can.”

    Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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