Restaurants that invested in ‘Shared Spaces’ call outdoor dining ban ‘devastating’

Owners say staff layoffs, closures are inevitable without financial help

Patricia Gums told 50 of her employees to pick up their last paycheck Tuesday, just days after San Francisco announced a mandatory closure of outdoor dining spaces in order to check the spread of an ongoing coronavirus surge.

The new wave of restrictions forced Curio Bar to shut down its sprawling outdoor dining space, which had taken over much of the closed-to-cars Valencia Street between 18th and 19th streets.

Equipped with heaters, tables, lounge chairs and furniture, the restaurant had used the street closure to preserve jobs and benefits for its 54 employees and provide a welcome respite for visitors.

But with last Friday’s stay-at-home order, it was rendered another casualty of the pandemic, at least for now.

“Since the announcement, everybody has basically been crying, every single day. I’ve been crying straight for four days straight,” said Gums, the bar’s general manager.

Of the 54 employees at the restaurant, all but four were laid off. The skeletal staff remaining, which includes Gums as well as a chef and two kitchen staff members, will handle takeout service.

Curio Bar’s story isn’t unique. More than 1,300 businesses secured a permit to shift commercial activity outdoors through Shared Spaces, the fee-free pandemic response program that allocates public land such as parking spaces or sidewalks for businesses.

Now, those that engaged in outdoor dining must close under the revised public health order, until at least Jan. 4. Merchants say it will be cataclysmic for their businesses and, most importantly, their workers.

The Valencia Room in the Mission District. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The Valencia Room in the Mission District. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Shared Spaces a lifeline

Shared Spaces has been a lifeline for San Francisco businesses.

After months of barely scraping by with to-go-only operations or temporary closure, the program allowed them to keep many employees working with health care and benefits as well as cover fixed costs such as utilities, garbage and cleaning that don’t go away even if there are no customers.

“We’re not talking about making money,” Valencia Street business owner Manny Yekutiel said of the hand-to-mouth revenue earned through Shared Spaces, which allowed businesses to maintain their staff.

With the promise of Shared Spaces, businesses citywide have invested thousands of dollars in outdoor dining platforms. Curio Bar spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on a setup, and Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and owner of two restaurants, said each of her dining platforms cost about $15,000.

They also ramped up hiring and retooled service models to comply with safety guidelines, bolstered by city officials who encouraged them to take advantage of the opportunity.

Even more merchants doubled down when the Shared Spaces permits were extended through June 2021, giving them confidence the program would stick around and hope they’d be able to recoup revenues lost in the early months of the pandemic and avoid laying off workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck.

But the recent ban changes the game on business owners yet again, and workers may bear the brunt.

“There is so much pain and suffering that I just don’t know if we’re truly making the overall right choice right now,” said Thomas, who had to lay off 52 workers, describing the outdoor dining ban’s consequences.

An Empty Shared Spaces outdoor dining area on Valencia Street is blocked with safety fencing to keep people out. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

An Empty Shared Spaces outdoor dining area on Valencia Street is blocked with safety fencing to keep people out. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Words from The City

The City has touted Shared Spaces as one of its most innovative and supportive COVID-19 response programs, so it says it’s doing what it can to keep permitted businesses viable during this phase of the stay-at-home order.

Though outdoor dining is banned, sanctioned activities such as outdoor retail, outdoor fitness, restaurant pick-up and farmer’s markets can still occur, and the permits will remain active through their current sunset date.

“We’re hopeful that we can stop this surge and reopen these locations as soon as possible because we know they’re critical to not only keeping many of these businesses afloat during the pandemic, but that they’re also going to be a critical part of our economic recovery even after this pandemic is over,” mayoral spokesperson Andy Lynch said in an email.

City agencies will also continue processing new permit applications and renewals.

Mayor London Breed has moved to attempt to rectify losses that will be incurred by businesses that shifted to take advantage of outdoor dining or retail.

On Monday, she announced a deferral of a significant portion of licensing fees for the next two years and a reimbursement of up to $5,000 for businesses with a Shared Spaces permit. Priority will be given to “locally-owned, minority-owned businesses that advance The City’s equity goals,” according to the COVID Command Center.

Yekutiel said while he appreciated and recognized The City’s efforts to ease the burden on small business, it needed to “show up financially for business, but it has not. It has done some, but not nearly enough.”

After last Friday’s announcement, many restaurants have already decided to temporarily shut down until there’s more stability because, as John Litz, co-owner of Noosh on Fillmore Street said, “The numbers tell you what to do.”

Litz has had to lay off almost all of the 68 workers he had working before COVID-19.

Many others, according to Thomas, are expected to do the same, if not shut down for good, with outdoor dining off the table.

Manny’s Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission District. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Manny’s Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission District. (Samantha Laurey/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

New life for city streets

Shared Spaces breathed life into The City for the first time in months.

Restaurants bustled with socially distanced-tables where friends could safely visit; block-length street closures invited neighbors to use the public domain; and creative collaborations between bars, restaurants and retailers energized commercial corridors.

“We’re not just places that sell stuff. We also provide relief for people and memory creation,” Yekutiel said. “Creating a mood is not just about the finer things, it’s also about the position we occupy in society as third spaces.”

The COVID Command Center said in an email this “pause” in outdoor dining is designed to limit activities that “encourage people to leave their home and where people interact with others from outside of their household, particularly where those interactions have additional risk factors.”

As streets have gone quiet again with outdoor dining areas largely unoccupied, restaurant workers await relief from City Hall, Sacramento, Washington D.C., or all of them.

“I can’t give you numbers, but I can tell you that if we don’t get anything done in DC, everybody will shut down,” Thomas said. “Me included.”

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