As patios open for dining and drinking, what is acceptable risk for going out?

I watch people dine on patios without face masks, sitting less than six feet apart.

It was not long ago, that many considered even going out to get a takeout vanilla latte was going to give them coronavirus and infect everyone they knew.

While sheltering-in-place with parents, I saw no one, went nowhere. We only touched groceries after they’d been sitting for 48 hours in the garage. I remember returning to The City and the sheer freedom of just getting takeout, but even that was considered a risk. Many friends won’t get into Ubers, and delivery services have for the most part set up contactless options.

That isn’t our world today.

This week, many businesses have opened their doors, and restaurants offered outdoor seating. I watch people dine on patios without face masks, sitting less than six feet apart. I often see friends observe picnics of 10 or 12 people at Dolores and other parks and comment, accurately, “I really don’t think all those people live with each other.” Correct me if I’m wrong, though: We still have no treatment. Infection rates are climbing, and still the best guidance remains that if you want to protect yourself, then stay home, wear a mask and limit all non-essential social engagement.

I am not one to judge. When I saw a friend a few days after returning, neither of us hesitated hugging each other. We spent what felt like forever standing in the street, gripping each other like a toddler attached to a parent’s leg. I also picnic with friends. I take walks with them. I visit the post office weekly for my apparel business. I Uber places. And even though I wear a face mask whenever I’m out, I put my hands on dirty poles to tape up flyers advertising my work.

Bars are suffering, and we’ve seen several of them close up shop for good. Still, I feel like I’ve heard from a few owners and bartenders how safe it can be if you came in with your “social bubble,” or “cluster,” or “quaranteam,” as a friend put it recently— basically people you’ve likely anecdotally determined are only spending time with you and a designated group, and they are otherwise at home and growing food in their backyards and taking daily showers in pure hand sanitizer. I don’t mean to hyperbolize, but I feel like you’re living in Xanadu if you think there’s something safe about that behavior.

For me, it is a question of calculated risk. What can you do to protect your physical health but maintain your mental stability?

On my end, even with risks I am taking, it isn’t time for bars to open or even restaurants for patio seating, or gyms, or even parks, where the point is less about the green grass, and more about all your friends seeing you. Basically anywhere that we cannot be trusted to not hug, or rub a shoulder, kiss or legitimately spit in each others’ faces are just not great ideas to me. Sometimes I feel like a minority opinion. A petition started by drag queen and Oasis co-owner Heklina has more than 8,000 signatures—including Mayor London Breed and Sen. Scott Wiener—to open bars up by July 13.

Lone Star Saloon. (Saul Sugarman/Special to S.F. Examiner)

“Bars can provide a safe, responsible, SUPERVISED environment for patrons with social distancing, partitioning, capacity limitations, and group sizes strictly enforced,” it reads.

Local bars are not cash cows on normal days, so I’m not picturing a supervised environment where they’ve spent extra money to hire three rent-a-cop types to stand around with rulers, reminding people to remain six feet apart. Likewise, I worked as an event producer in bars for five years, and I found staff generally hyper-sensitive to customer service— they only intervened with someone if the person’s behavior made it absolutely necessary.

In a phone call, Heklina told me this sort of speculation could go back and forth indefinitely, but ultimately, bars and other businesses have been preparing to open safely, and that adults should make that choice for themselves whether to go out.

“People automatically assume bar owners are going to fling their doors open and throw on dance music. That’s not going to happen,” she said.

She also said we were in “a rock and a hard place,” though.

“I’ve made my entire career packing people into small spaces. That’s not going to be my reality for a while.”

A lot of her points focused on the unfairness I’ve heard from other owners about certain businesses being allowed to open while others, like bars, get hung out to dry.

“It’s not necessary to go to a restaurant to eat, you can eat at home. It’s on the person if they feel they can go to a restaurant,” she said. “Bar owners can’t wait another month or two to open. They’re people just like restaurant owners and gym owners. They have to make a living.”

Admittedly, I agree with the sentiment, but only sort of. They do have to make a living, of course, but the difference between bars and other businesses is the sellable product is, in part, a less responsible experience.

“As a bar owner, I make my money by selling people drinks and diminishing their responsibility. If you come into my bar and get drunk, you make decisions you wouldn’t normally make. And I make money from that,” said Charlie Stuart Evans, co-owner of Lone Star Saloon.

In May, Evans told me he would be back behind the bar in June. His tone felt different this week when I sat down with him.

“I want to open as soon as it’s safe, not as soon as I can … I also have my own personal comfort level to think of. No matter what I do in the bar, there’s children in my building. It would crush me if I did anything like that to those kids.”

Today, he sells takeout food and also lets exactly eight people sit on the patio to eat with a beer. He feels bars shouldn’t open until it’s safe to do so, but that can be done before suggested guidance in August.

Evans is from Australia, where, he notes, just over 100 people have died in a situation that has people honoring social distancing.

“Over there, you find your spot and don’t wander around the bar,” he said, hoping for something similar when his bar opens. He’d like to flank some of the street in front of the bar with patio furniture, and also section off areas on the patio.

But money is a problem for him, too. He said his landlord was “working with him” but didn’t want to get specific. Based on what he said, though, it sounded to me like the bar would be in deep trouble if that relationship ended.

I don’t want to see them go away, but it’s hard to think about the best course of action here. I don’t have an answer as I write this today, but it was nice to catch up with Evans on the Lone Star Saloon patio for the first time in quite awhile. I asked him to make me a summery drink, and he whipped up a Jam-hattan, basically a Manhattan with a few extras, including cranberry juice. “But none of that shit from the soda gun,” he said. As I took his photo with the cocktail and a Lone Star handkerchief around his face, he quipped, “Do I have Covid hair?”

“Jam-hattan”

• 3 ounces Jameson

• Dash of bitters

• Splash of sweet vermouth

Served up in a martini glass and garnish with a cherry, but to make it summer: build the drink into a tall glass over ice, and float it to the top with cranberry juice.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other Sunday in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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