Why indoor dining is still not an option in Santa Clara County
Diners sit outside at Zazil in San Jose's Santana Row following county orders that restaurants could serve food outdoors. Photo courtesy of Federal Realty Investment Trust.

In Santa Clara County, you can walk into a business and get your hair and nails done, work out and even get a tattoo. But you can’t eat.

The county recently got the OK to move into the red tier of the state’s categories that allow more businesses to reopen and is taking steps toward returning to the normalcy that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barbershops, hair salons, gyms and even tattoo and piercing parlors can now let customers in through their doors as long as they adhere to safety protocols, such as limiting the number of customers who can be inside.

However, there remains one notable type of business still left out in the cold: indoor dining.

“We’re hurting, that’s for sure,” said Sammy Reyes, general manager and executive chef at Scott’s Seafood, in San Jose. “We used to have over 50 on our payroll but now we have about 30. My staff is suffering.”

As far as the state is concerned, restaurants in counties that fall under the red tier can serve customers indoors. But the county has the final say. And the issue is one that illustrates the uncertainty that continues to color reactions to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“The red tier allows for a business to operate at 25% capacity indoors,” said Eddie Truong, director of government relations for the Silicon Valley Organization, the region’s equivalent to a chamber of commerce. “Small businesses, like many restaurants, are caught in the middle and wondering about what their timelines for reopening should look like. At the very minimum, the state and county should not have two different goalposts for opening the county’s economy.”

Santa Clara County Health Department officials said allowing restaurants to allow indoor dining creates a raft of safety issues that are still concerning.

“Indoor dining is a riskier activity given the present level of COVID-19 infections and the nature of indoor dining as an activity that inherently requires removal of face coverings indoors,” the health department said in a statement. “Indoor activities where members of the public are not wearing a face covering thus create a significantly higher risk of spreading COVID-19. Indoor dining necessarily involves removal of face coverings indoors, which makes it a higher risk.”

The Silicon Valley Coalition of Chambers (SVCC), a group consisting of chambers of commerce around the area, has come out against the county’s decision. In a statement, the group said that because of the county’s reluctance to relax restrictions upon reopening, “local businesses are suffering to the point of extinction.”

The SVCC cited statistics from the National Restaurant Association that 3 million restaurant workers nationwide remain out of work, and 1 in 6 restaurants have either closed for the long term, or permanently, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The group has proposed a plan for the county that includes input from the business community about safely reopening.

“Reopening the economy and keeping the county’s residents safe is an objective that can be achieved simultaneously,” said the SVCC. “It is time to help our businesses get back to work and restore a healthy community.”

The issue of indoor dining has received more attention following a Sept. 10 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said dining out, whether indoors or outdoors at a restaurant, appears to be one of the riskiest behaviors involved when it comes to contracting COVID-19.

“Eating and drinking on-site at locations that offer such options might be important risk factors associated with (COVID-19) infection,” wrote the CDC. The report also said that based on interviews with 314 people tested for the virus, those who tested positive were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant as those who tested negative.

Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious disease physician with Stanford Health Care, agreed with the CDC about the risks of  posed by indoor dining.

“This is prudent to delay opening up indoor dining in our county,” Winslow said. “We know that the indoor environment is the highest threat environment for transmission of COVID-19. Since one can’t wear a face covering when eating or drinking, you can’t take advantage of this proven mitigating intervention.”

Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, said the indoor dining issue is one that’s not likely to be easily solved to everyone’s satisfaction anytime soon.

“There are many things where I feel the public health authorities can be too cautious but indoor dining isn’t one of them,” Chin-Hong said. “But, even with the best of intentions, when people make public health recommendations, they’re going to disappoint a lot of people.”

Contact Rex Crum at [email protected] or follow @rexcrum on Twitter.

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