California entered a three week cool-off the week of Aug. 24 as Gov. Gavin Newsom devised a four tier reopening plan. If during two of those weeks California remains below the accepted level of infection and positivity rates, restaurants will be allowed to reopen restricted indoor dining on a county-by-county basis. This week is the final determining week for Orange County.
According to covid19.ca.gov, 87% of California counties including Los Angeles and Orange County remain in the purple tier, which is the most restrictive. The goal is to move more counties into the red tier (25% capacity indoor dining) or orange tier (50% capacity indoor dining).
For many small restaurants in Laguna Beach, the opportunity to reopen indoor dining ensures an increase in business. After about two months of restricted outdoor dining, restaurants have been forced to get creative with their seating. For Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach, this has meant closing off the main entrance to the street so the surrounding restaurants can place tables outside for customers.
Rules for walking on Forest Ave. in Laguna Beach. Catherine Norby/Lariat
One of those restaurants is 230 Forest. Up and running for 25 years now, the small upscale eatery has taken advantage of the new access to outdoor tables while exercising heavy precautions to prevent spreading the coronavirus. Head chef and owner Marc Cohen has ensured the safety of his staff comes first, starting with temperature checks upon entrance.
“We know it’s not going to save the world, but it makes the customers next to you feel safer and at the same time it helps my staff to feel a little more protected,” Cohen said. “We also have plexiglass in front of the hostess desks and all the way around the bar as well to protect the bartenders when we do go indoors. All the tables get sanitized after every use and all the menus are laminated with a heavy laminate so that they can be sanitized as well after every use.”
Cohen has also placed UPC codes on all the tables as a replacement for menus. Any customer can use their phone’s camera to scan the code and pull up the menu.
Though California has been enforcing masks for roughly five months now, Cohen has found there is still some resistance from customers. The issue at hand remains protecting his staff and other customers at the restaurant.
“It’s not about the business, it’s about respecting the people that are there,” Cohen said. “If you want to continue to have that luxury and continue to have us provide the food and the service that we do, we need your cooperation as a community to help us protect you.”
Kurt Bojarkman, general manger at The Ranch at Laguna Beach, has faced similar issues to Cohen when it comes to keeping his staff and customers safe.
“We take a hardline stance on the different social distancing and mask protocols so if a guest doesn’t want to wear a mask here, we don’t serve them,” Bojarkman said. “ I think we’ve trained people that if they want to have this experience and they want to be here and enjoy this, they got to play with us in this. Whether they believe in it or not, they have to do it.”
Bojarkman is currently able to run 120 tables on the outdoor patio at The Ranch. The movement of Orange County into a red or orange tier would allow him to open up 50 more tables. The precautions he takes to protect his staff and customers are nearly the same as Cohen.
Though he does not take the temperatures of customers in addition to his staff, Bojarkman does check his sanitation products on the CDC website every week to ensure they are the best ones to continue using. He also has his staff use hour glasses on the each table after it’s sanitized to allow the chemical to do its job for 5 minutes before customers are seated.
“We have somebody called a sanizar,” Bojarkman said. “Their only job during the day is to go around sanitizing surfaces.”
It’s through the actions of business owners such as Cohen and Bojarkman that California will be able to look at reopening indoor dining again. It takes the cooperation of customers and patience of waitstaff to ensure a safe reopening so that the state does not have to shut down again.
“It takes a few bad apples to mess it up for everybody, which is what happened last time.” Bojarkman said.