On Jan 3., when news came that Humboldt County had a record-breaking 400 confirmed new COVID-19 cases, as well as two confirmed Omicron variant infections, it hit more than close to home for Six Rivers Brewery co-owner Meredith Maier. She was, in fact, at home after having tested positive for the virus. Luckily, she says, she was exposed before a few days off, so didn't have contact with her staff, who are vaccinated and have received booster shots, before quarantining for 10 days.
Like other food and drink businesses in Humboldt, Six Rivers Brewery has changed tack and adapted to the twists and turns of the pandemic: shifting to takeout, changing cleaning protocols, reducing dining capacity or shutting down indoor service entirely, beefing up (and heating up) outdoor seating, laying off or bringing on staff, and enforcing masking rules with a sometimes resistant or downright hostile public. Now, in the face of another spike and the apparently even faster spreading Omicron variant, restaurant workers and owners are once again bracing for impact — in terms of both health and economics.
At Six Rivers Brewery, doors and windows are always open. "We get complaints about it all the time but for me it's ventilation, ventilation, ventilation," says Maier. "We invested in parkas for the staff to wear inside this winter." Ventilation was on her mind the evening she gathered with friends outdoors before moving inside due to the cold. "We certainly suffered the consequences of that decision," she says, noting that others tested positive after the event, too. "You're definitely leaving yourself open to the possibility of infection if you're hanging out with people unmasked in tight spaces."
Supervising Public Health Nurse Hava Phillips's response to a Journal email echoes that thought and goes further in recommending not mixing households. "Take out is the safest option, but if you choose to dine in, eat outside with people you live with," she says, adding that it's important for servers to stay masked around customers. Those customers, required to wear masks when entering or moving about a restaurant, are, of course, unmasked while eating and drinking.
In Arcata, the Kebab Café is sticking to the takeout-only plan it's had in place since the pandemic started. "It has been smooth," says Manager Ashkim Beyzade. "We have a good system down." That system includes a table at the door where food and payment change hands without customers setting foot inside the restaurant. A couple of staff COVID-19 cases in 2020 forced a brief closure and quarantine after the Thanksgiving holiday but now, she says, most of the employees are vaccinated. But new variant or not, Beyzade says there are no plans to return to dine-in service for now. "We are so busy with the takeout and we just have a very good system, and there's just no need to go back," she says. "No one really wants to go back right now."
Carrie Anne Nuse, co-owner of Chicago Dog House, just passed the tiny shop's one-year anniversary after initially opening as a cart within view of the Redwood Acres COVID-19 testing site ("Underdog," May 14, 2020). She says the business will keep its grab-and-go model, with only a pair of tables on the sidewalk when it's warm and dry enough. "Just please, please, please wear a mask," she says. Beyond that, there isn't much more she can do in the face of a new variant, though she's open to advice. As strong as business was for the first year amid rocky circumstances, the last few months have been slow and Nuse worries about another wave making matters worse on top of supply issues. "If we get more mandates and more things that won't allow people to come out and eat out of their homes, it's going to affect all the businesses. We're just trying to keep our door open."
At Oberon Grill in Old Town, owner Nicholas Kohl is making his own calculations for the survival of his business. After seeing the local COVID-19 numbers, he's reducing seating capacity by 25 percent and holding off on expanding his hours, which are down to five meal services per week from 14 pre-pandemic. "I feel pretty OK about what we're doing — I recognize the challenge we're at now and the numbers that came out were disheartening," he says, adding he feels he can make short-term changes for public health. That includes shutting down if indoor dining is no longer allowed, as takeout and delivery aren't a fit financially or in terms of the business he wants to run. Kohl says he can pare down staffing and inventory, but some overhead costs, like rent and utilities, won't budge. Power alone, he says, can run in the thousands with a commercial refrigerator running 24/7.
"The food service business community is in peril," says Kohl, who hopes for government aid and grants to move the industry toward recovery. "We knew it was gonna be a hard winter," he says, and he remains optimistic. "This time last year, I was fully shut down and I was getting on a crab boat," having signed on as a commercial deck hand. Now back at Oberon, he's trying to bring his business back into shape. "Even though we're facing this, it represents progress."
Maier notes that while Six Rivers Brewery has had tremendous community support, it's also had more than its share of angry patrons refusing to mask and insulting staff. She adds she's thrown out more people in the past year than all her others combined.
Smaller establishments with less room to maneuver and no outdoor seating have fewer options, and they're facing customers who don't always follow the protocols management has put in place. One server, who asked to have their name withheld, says many people come in with no mask and confrontational attitudes that make working amid yet another wave more difficult. "There is a vast majority of people who just don't give a fuck," they say. "They wanna go out, they want to be served. They want all the amenities but they don't care about you. Because if they did, they'd put a mask on." Instead, they say, unmasked patrons offer excuses like asthma or unproduced doctor's notes. "It's just exhausting to be on the frontline, which restaurants are becoming." Among their circle of friends and colleagues, they see more people leave the service industry over poor treatment than fear of exposure.
But they say the arrival of Omicron and the spike in local cases "scares the everliving fuck out of" them, especially for the vulnerable people in their life. "Unless there is strong wording from officials, from state, local, federal, whatever, I don't think my place of work is going to do anything" in terms of reducing seating capacity or other safety measures that might reduce profits. "I'm wearing an N95 the second I walk through the door; I'm washing my hands a zillion times a day. Other than that, what can I do? ... It's harder dealing with people now because everybody wants things to be normal. It's very stressful to be normal."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.