outdoor dining, three weeks in
20 Spot on Tuesday evening. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Walk down any commercial sidewalk in the Mission District, and you’ll see workers erecting wood dividers or chest-high barriers where restaurants are marking off their territory for outside dining. 

In hours, corners, sidewalks and parking spaces can be transformed. On Tuesday morning workers hammered together boards in front of 20 Spot, a wine and food restaurant on 20th Street. By evening, waiters were serving customers outdoors. On Wednesday morning, plywood marked a soon-to-be dining area in front of Hawker Fare on Valencia. By evening, a few diners were at the tables. 

In front of 20 Spot Tuesday morning. Photo by Lydia Chávez

The neighborhood almost feels Parisian, but the now-plein air restaurants say beware — the seats will not replace their pre-COVID revenue levels.

“I think every restaurant is like, ‘this isn’t going to be enough.’ No one is going to write a business plan to succeed in this environment,” said Nat Cutler, one of the owners of Monk’s Kettle, which has tables — and even heating for San Francisco’s frigid evenings — along Albion Street. 

Outdoor seating would need to be consistently fully booked for him to stay afloat, Cutler said, and outdoor dining’s early popularity has already begun to wane. The cooler weather and last week’s spike in new COVID-19 cases did not help.

“We’ve seen it ebb and flow. It flowed initially with the excitement, then it ebbed as people got kind of jittery with all of the reporting that’s come out in the last week,” said Cutler.

Although outdoor dining has been allowed since mid-June, some restaurants are still in the process of reopening their tables. 

Once 20 Spot, for example, got city approval, staff constructed barriers in the parking spaces in front of the restaurant, as well as an adjacent Alcoholics Anonymous center, and began offering dining service there Tuesday. 

The small restaurant, once a punk record shop, was able to get city permits to use these spaces by applying for the Shared Spaces Program, a city effort in which restaurants can temporarily use sidewalk and parking spaces near their establishments to bolster their seating count to better match their previous indoor capacities.

Although 20 Spot has 12 fewer seats now than before COVID-19, it has found outdoor dining helpful.

“It’s been really positive so far, a lot more [business] than from takeout before,” said Bodhi Freedom, a co-owner of 20 Spot.

One of 20 Spot’s co-owners, Peter Googin,  said the process to get use of the parking spaces was “very straightforward.” Simply check the box on the Shared Spaces online application that says you want to use a parking space, submit your $1 million general liability commercial insurance policy and release the city from any liability, and wait for the city to give you the all-clear.

Although business has been good so far, Freedom is uncertain about the immediate future.

“It’s very day-to-day. I won’t be surprised if the city shuts down outdoor dining. We’re just trying to get some money in the bank so we can be here next year,” said Freedom.

Others said business remains slow. 

Etcetera, a wine bar on Valencia Street, has a total of 26 seats across tables of varying size, as well as in front of the still-closed businesses Schauplatz Clothing and Yasmin.

Etcetera’s owner, Alexandra Gerteis, said that it’s good to be open again, but since opening on June 12. “Business has been up and down.”

The novelty of outdoor dining has worn off.  “It’s not as exciting as it was like two weeks ago,” said Gerteis.

Etcetera, which does not have permanent outdoor seating, is relying on the city’s Shared Spaces Program. The program stipulates that owners must notify the city two business days in advance of placing seats and follow the program’s rules, which include leaving at least six feet of sidewalk space to comply with the ADA. 

To supplement its current sidewalk seating, Gerteis is attempting to secure the parking spaces in front of Etcetera.

Monk’s Kettle is also way below capacity and Cutler would like to appropriate parking spaces on Albion Street. In doing so, however, he’s concerned that sitting close to traffic could detract from the atmosphere that diners expect from his restaurant.

“We don’t want to sacrifice the experience for our customers. … Any customer that dines with us should feel nothing different except we’re all wearing masks,” said Cutler.

Monk’s Kettle is lucky — Ben Bleiman, the owner of Tonic Nightlife Group, notes that restaurants and bars that already had permanent outdoor seating, either on the sidewalk and/or their own patio, had a significant advantage — especially since having these areas allowed restaurants to serve alcohol without a “temporary catering authorization.”

“The only thing that’s going to decide whether you win or lose right now is if you have space for tables, and if you have a patio; that may be the lifeline you need,” said Bleiman.

Its large outdoor patio space may be just that for Zeitgeist, which re-opened June 11 for takeaway and its garden space June 12 for outdoor dining.

Zeitgeist can seat 135 people across 18 tables in its outdoor patio, with 11 staff to keep it all running smoothly. The bar has placed plastic screens between each table to protect diners, along with one-way traffic lanes throughout the area. 

With the reduced capacity, Zeitgeist enforces a maximum one-hour stay for all parties. Lara Burmeister greets guests outside, checks IDs, and tells customers the rules of the house: 1) you must order food to be served alcohol, 2) a server will come only once to take your whole order, 3) and you must leave after one hour.

“We have a reputation for managing a crowd,” said Burmeister.

Still, she said, “We don’t have the line down the street that we had the first week. As much as that first weekend was exciting, it also felt very difficult to make sure everyone was staying safe.”

And adds Cutler, there’s the psychological aspect of any dining experience in the time of the pandemic. 

“Where are people at?” he said.  “Are they going to get scared by the recent data or are they going to say ‘that doesn’t affect me, I know how to handle my own safety precautions?’ What’s their accepted level of risk?” 

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19 Comments

  1. Ms. Chávez,

    “20 Spot on Tuesday Evening” photo: Beautiful street photography tableau. Nice shootin’!

  2. Please talk to wait staff and servers. Do not just report what owners are saying. Provide confidentiality to servers so they can talk freely. This has been a disaster for servers, even ones working for compassionate + understanding owners. Owners will always sell this as, “were trying to make it work,” cause they have no other option.

    Also, this isn’t just about restaurants and it is clear that the City hasn’t really thought the whole outdoor seating thing through. As someone who lives in the Mission, all of the outdoor seating has made navigating walking the sidewalks terribly anxiety-producing. At ever single outdoor table with people at it, someone isn’t wearing a mask and they are less than 6 feet from the person walking down the sidewalk.

    While I want to be supportive and empathetic to the restaurants and their staff, this is horrible for the general public and continues to create unsafe public health conditions. Time and again I’ve also seen customers not put on their mask while seated and talking to their masked server. That isn’t how a mask works. It’s there not to protect you but to protect others. When a customer doesn’t wear their mask while talking to a server they are literally putting the servers life at risk. All for a meal outdoors.

    I get that business owners are only following the available legalities put forward by our cities, states, and federal government. This means our government needs to get its head out of its ass and really pass economic + financial relief to WORKERS (and business owners). They also need to provide IMMEDIATE RENT + MORTGAGE RELIEF (and not deferment, which is literal debt accrual) through a ban on collecting rent and mortgages.

    It is also incumbent on REPORTERS to make these connections for readers. This article needs more voices centered. Please do better in your reporting.

    1. As a resident in the neighborhood of 20th and Valencia, I have daily been witnessing 20 Spot’s gradual re-opening. It is unsettling how this wine bar permits its customers to stand and sit in groups with no apparent regard for the Covid-19 related health- and safety guidelines. The customers at this location are mostly not wearing masks and generally gather in close proximity to one another. Only recently did 20 Spot post a sign urging customers to wear a mask (on a hand written chalk board also advertising refreshments for sale), but this does not appear to have made a difference – the customers largely gather at the location without masks. This clear disregard for public health in favor of a bit of socializing and some income gained is deeply disturbing.

      1. I’ve seen the blue “6 foot distance / wear a mask” etc signs (the ones distributed by the city) posted in the windows of this restaurant ever since they opened for takeout / pickup weeks ago. They added the “please wear masks” sign on the chalkboard as an *additional* sign when they opened for outdoor seating.

        From what I’ve seen they’ve been following the rules for outdoor seating well, and couldn’t do much more apart from shutting down and boarding up the business.

  3. It sucks walking on the sidewalks now and being unable to get away from unmasked people in front of these restaurants and bars. I’m fine with these restaurants making good use of streets and parking spots, but please keep our sidewalks and public spaces clear and safe.
    If your business requires people to take off their masks, it does not belong on the sidewalk.

  4. Imagine a pack of people without masks next to another pack of people within the confines of a 30 foot storefront. Anyone walking by is going to shorten that 6 foot distance , unlike the circles at Dolores Park. To me, a senior that’s an affront. Why would I entrust my safety to others working in close quarters in a hot kitchen? This author here, chooses to pose the question, “will people show up? ” It’s an insult to my intelligence. Anyone knows that you have to do twice what these government recommends. First the government said 3 feet,
    and when that wasn’t clear enough, they said 6. That 6 foot rule is bent all the time any time anyone walks by. And the author also failed to mention there ain’t no toilets or places to wash your hands.

    1. Customers are allowed to use the restaurant’s restroom facilities, and must wear a mask while not seated at their table.

      1. Restroom facilities in restaurants are inevitably “super spreader” locations — you’d have to be insane to use them.

          1. FACT: Toilets spew a plume of aerosol particles into the air with every flush.

            Accordingly, every time one uses a public restroom after a previous user, one is exposing oneself to these aerosolized particles.

            Enjoy your restaurant meal — I think I’ll continuing cooking and eating at home as it’s just not worth the risk.

            https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/could-flushing-public-toilet-plume-spread-coronavirus-cvd/

            https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/21/should-you-avoid-public-bathrooms-to-remain-coronavirus-free/#3e347f842106

            https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/5/22/21266335/coronavirus-covid-public-bathroom-safety-clean

            https://www.adventhealth.com/blog/it-safe-use-public-bathrooms

          2. All this poop scenario very unlikely – bathroom exhaust fan, wash hands, live.

            Here’s the latest on most likely way the Covid-19 virus is transmitted (Wall Street Journal)

            “How Exactly Do You Catch Covid-19? There Is a Growing Consensus”

            https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-exactly-do-you-catch-covid-19-there-is-a-growing-consensus-11592317650

            Feel free to lock yourself indoors for your own safety (and don’t drive a car for heaven’s sake!, or cross a street, or venture out after dark, or eat meat, or sugar. Make sure to exercise vigorously for at least an hour per day and eat more than enough leafy greens. Oh and don’t use a cell phone—radiation, you know),, but please don’t force your extremes on those who choose to prudently proceed with life, and may need some social contact to keep their sanity intact.

        1. All these hysterical proclamations., with commenters trying this whip people into a frenzy with misinformation.

          In fact here’s evidence to the contrary. There’s only one documented case of possible virus spread in restrooms, and it is a cleaning worker. The article goes on to say “ In general, people don’t spend very long in bathrooms, so they tend to get smaller doses of whatever is in there, which probably makes it less likely that they’ll develop the virus. They also don’t frequently have face-to-face conversations, lowering the possibility of droplet transmission.”

          https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/05/31/how-coronavirus-spreads/

          1. Nothing “hysterical” about it.

            Q: How exactly does one “contact trace” a public restroom?

            A: One can’t. There is absolutely no way of knowing how many people have contracted Covid19 via this obvious and pervasive pathway. Especially, restaurant restrooms, especially older, cramped, substandard ones which are ubiquitous throughout the City.

            At a minimum these existing restrooms need to be retrofitted with touch-less faucets, touch-less soap dispensers, touch-less toilet controls and “closed-type” seats (Of course, we’ll have to trust each user to close the seat (e.g. with their foot) prior to flushing — good luck policing that!)

            Additionally, this restrooms, which are typically quite filthy, need to be cleaned by janitorial staff practically continuously — which as you’ve pointed out in your example exposes such workers to significant risk.

            Short of a widely administered (effective) vaccine and/or enough time for the general population to achieve herd immunity, this is a perilous/untenable situation.

            And prior to that we really ought to be underway with a massive nationwide testing effort to identify those that are infected (estimated to be about 2 million persons).

            If we did that and were able to quarantine those individuals for 14 days, then we could actually beat this thing without a vaccine!

            However, given present national leadership (or should I say lack thereof) this latter route appears, unfortunately, to be an impossibility.

            Alas.

          2. @SFDOC and somehow “AdventHealth”, Vox, Forbes and national Geographic are more reliable sources than WSJ?

            How about the CDC:

            “ The virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in the feces of some patients diagnosed with COVID-19. However, it is unclear whether the virus found in feces may be capable of causing COVID-19. There has not been any confirmed report of the virus spreading from feces to a person.”

            I stand by my comment that these hysterical comments about catching Covid-19 from fecal vapors are far-fetched.

  5. I fully concur with the general sentiment of the comments. I, too, want to be supportive and empathetic to the restaurants/ staff, but this not a thought through solution and more actionism. It has created unsafe public health conditions for the benefit of a smaller number of citizens.

    What strikes me the most, in advanced countries with much higher scrutiny of data privacy topics, like Germany, they have mobile tracing apps. Likewise restaurants require sign ins by customers to keep track and inform of cases after their occurrence and to always take all measures to reduce the spread/ combat the virus. In the oh so advanced SF? None of that.

  6. I walk by 20Spot several times a week on one of my daily neighborhood walks. Yes, there are table on the sidewalks and the people at them are eating and drinking, so not wearing masks. But there’s plenty of room to walk around as 20th Street is closed to traffic. It’s great to see people navigating this crisis and trying to keep their small businesses afloat, the best they can. Let’s figure out how to share the spaces we have.

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