Batch and Brine in Lafayette. (Photo courtesy of city of Lafayette)

No one with ties to restaurants in central Contra Costa County says the county’s move Tuesday from the “red tier” of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy to the less restrictive “orange tier” is a panacea for a struggling local industry. But, any move to allow for more diners is better than no move, or a backwards one.

“Every seat, every chair for us, potentially represents about $150 for us every night,” said Laura Magu, owner of Reve Bistro in Lafayette. “So that is indeed a big deal.”

Bob Cascardo, general manager of Va de Vi Bistro and Wine Bar in downtown Walnut Creek, agreed. But, given his venue’s relatively small size, combined with the requirements for social distancing, Va de Vi will begin indoor dining on Monday with only five tables.

While the changes for his restaurant possible under the orange tier are positive, Cascardo said the benefits will be “negligible at best” for a venue the size of Va de Vi.

“But every single seat counts,” Cascardo said.

Kathy Hemmenway is “cautiously optimistic” that these incremental moves to allow restaurants and bars to reopen further will proceed to further loosen restrictions.

“It gives a little glimmer of hope of getting back to normalcy,” said Hemmenway, executive director of the business advocacy group Walnut Creek Downtown.

The “orange tier” changes enacted Tuesday in Contra Costa County allow indoor dining at 50 percent venue occupancy capacity (up from 25 percent) or 200 people, whichever is fewer. Also, bars and other businesses that sell alcoholic beverages without meals can open for outdoor-only operation.

Teri Killgore, Walnut Creek’s assistant city manager, said the potential benefits of the move to the orange tier vary significantly from restaurant to restaurant. Those with small interiors that cannot add tables and still maintain the required social distancing, she said, likely won’t see much benefit. For venues with large interior spaces, she said, the capacity increase could be meaningful.

“We are hearing really mixed input from restaurants about the move into orange,” said Killgore, whose office oversees the city’s Rebound program helping local businesses get through the COVID-19 pandemic. Of downtown Walnut Creek’s 117 food and drink businesses, 51 are participating in Rebound in some capacity.

The move to orange came a week earlier than some restaurateurs expected, said Rolla Ghaben, whose family owns a number of area restaurants, including Batch and Brine in Lafayette, and Broderick Roadhouse and Mel’s Diner in Walnut Creek. The move prompted some last-minute scrambling ahead of the weekend.

“Nobody’s complaining, but physically we weren’t ready,” Ghaben said.

For restaurants with smaller physical spaces, maintaining mandated social distancing requirements is a tougher challenge than for restaurants with more expansive dining rooms.

For Batch and Brine, the loosened restrictions mean indoor capacity will increase from 28 diners to 54. That doesn’t necessarily mean more groups can be served inside, Ghaben said; rather, larger groups, maintaining social distancing, are now possible.

And the increase in capacity isn’t necessarily enough to salvage what’s been a very tough year economically for any businesses, much less restaurants, a notoriously challenging, low-margin profession even in the best of times.

“It’s hard to be successful when you can’t operate at full capacity,” Ghaben said.

Jay Lifson, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, is a former restaurateur himself. He said he understands well the challenges facing local restaurant operators, COVID-19 and otherwise. He said the Lafayette restaurant community, like that in Walnut Creek or any city, has been challenging. But Lifson said the community — diners and property owners both — has been very supportive, and expects that to continue.

“The graciousness of the property owners is the main reason we still have restaurants open,” Lifson said.

Ghaben said her landlords and Walnut Creek and Lafayette have gone the extra mile to help those restaurants. Andreia Drumm, owner of the Brasos do Brazil Brazilian Steakhouse in the Park & Shop center near downtown Concord, concurs.

Drumm said that, for her restaurant, the move to the orange tier will formally allow an expansion from a maximum of 55 diners to 110. But given the social distancing mandates, there can’t practically be a full doubling of the number of inside diners, she said. (Hemmenway said that, thanks to the physical mechanics of social distancing, a 50 percent boost in official capacity generally equates to a 35 to 40 percent potential headcount increase).

Even upping indoor dining capacity to 100 percent now, some operators said, doesn’t ensure diners will come back inside immediately.

There’s still COVID-19-driven apprehension among the foodie public, they say. Several restaurateurs said this week they expect their outdoor seating — patios, sidewalks and, in some cases, closed-off streets on weekends — along with takeout orders, to continue to carry their businesses.

Va de Vi’s Cascardo said he’s improved the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system to better filter and circulate fresh air in that restaurant, making the dining room safer both for diners and for restaurant staff.

But he and others understand that “public acceptance of indoor dining still varies widely,” and that while some diners are ready to eat inside now, others will take a while to feel comfortable coming back.

The move to the orange tier isn’t enough to generate much new hiring. Ghaben said Batch and Brine was already back to full staffing when outside dining was first allowed over the summer. And as for Magu’s Reve Bistro, “It takes just as many people to run at 25 percent (capacity) as it does for 50 percent,” she said.

Restaurant owners hope for more acceptance of indoor dining, and for a move to an even less restrictive tier rating, as winter will likely mean less outdoor dining in coming weeks and months.

As Drumm sees it, the move to orange tier is more symbolic than immediately beneficial. She, and other restaurant operators, are aware that health officials in Solano County are warning of a possible regression from the red tier back to the much more restrictive purple. A couple owners contacted this week say it’s quite possible, given the upticks in COVID-19
infections in many parts of the U.S.

That regression in Contra Costa County, Drumm and others said, would be devastating and demoralizing.

“The orange (tier) makes a difference in that we’re walking in a good direction rather than walking backwards,” Drumm said.