After six months of navigating the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants on the West Coast are facing another deadly interruption: 4,000 miles of fires that have destroyed wildlife, communities and prompted evacuations up and down the coast. Over the past week, many restaurants made the difficult decision to shut down temporarily or until further notice as the air quality index reached 400 (considered “hazardous”) in Portland, 190 in San Francisco (considered “unhealthy”) and 175 in Seattle (also “unhealthy.”)
Restaurants and local governments have been left trying to determine which health crisis — COVID-19 or the air pollution levels — is more hazardous. Last week in Butte County, Calif., where at least 10 people have died of the wildfires, the public health department temporarily retracted its ban on indoor dining given the “emergency situation” of the fires and smoke inhalation dangers of outdoor dining, according to The Los Angeles Times. Two days later, the temporary relaxation of the rules was rescinded.
Individual restaurant owners and chains made the decision over the Sept. 11 weekend to temporarily close down restaurants. Vancouver, Wash.-based, 40-unit burger chain Burgerville had been relying almost entirely on mobile orders and had never reopened their dining rooms during the pandemic. On Friday, September 11, they closed all of their restaurants except their Portland airport location due to poor air quality. On Sunday, September 13, they experimented with opening three of their Northern-most locations in Washington and Oregon. The company distributed KN-95 masks to all employees, and created new safety policies for employees at the reopened locations:
“When the air quality index fell below the not-dangerous level, we looked at possibility of opening specific restaurants up again,” Hillary Barbour, director of strategic initiatives at Burgerville said. “We made changes to air vent system and shut off the economizer so it does not bring outside air into the restaurant. We turned off delivery to limit the doors opening and closing and offer drive-thru only from 12-6 pm. We’re rotating staff frequently at the drive-thru so they’re not exposed too long to the outside air.”
An employee at one of the reopened Burgerville locations had to be evacuated from her home but showed up to work the next day because as she put it, “I still have to make money.” Burgerville is also sending food to some of the hardest-hit communities surrounding their still-shuttered restaurants to help evacuees.
“We’re really concerned for the community,” Barbour said. “Everyone is a bit tired but we’re rallying.”
For many restaurants, whether or not to open or reduce hours has to be a last-minute decision based on the current air quality conditions. Black Jet Baking Co., a bakery in San Francisco known for its breakfast pastries and tea, made the decision to close its doors last week as the air quality index got worse, and have only reopened for limited hours or for pickups. Owner Gillian Shaw Lundgren said that she “obsessively” checks the smoke conditions and does not require employees to work if they don’t feel comfortable. But even with N95 masks and limited hours in hand, her safety precautions do nothing to help the bakery’s precarious financial situation.
“We still have to pay our rent, utilities, staff and vendors,” Shaw Lundgren said. “Each day, each minute we are closed is catastrophic to our already severely damaged business. I have trouble processing just how terrible it is for our bakery because the focus has been on our safety.”
But even though burger restaurants and bakeries have the option to stay open if they keep their employees (and the healthy air) inside, food carts and food trucks are not so lucky.
Josh Schimmel-Bristow made the decision to close his Portland-based Mexican food cart, The Meddling Lime, on September 9 and has not reopened since. The decision to shut down came down to the safety of his employees and guests and the food quality, which had started to suffer because the air pollution was seeping into his food.
“Food carts are really in it,” he said. “There really isn’t a way to not be affected by the elements and because of their small operating spaces, there is less wiggle room for how to make things work without compromise. The difference really comes down to working conditions and if you’re indoors you’re going to have better systems in place for maintaining air quality.”
Some restaurants have had to get creative to survive during this double-layered crisis of the pandemic and wildfires. Fine-dining Californian-Italian restaurant Sorrel in San Francisco had just reopened outdoor dining in July after closing for months during the pandemic. Now with the restaurant closed yet again on September 10 for smoke conditions, they’ve had to get creative to keep sales bolstered. Executive chef Alex Hong created a four-course tasting menu this week available for delivery and takeout, along with picnic baskets and pantry items, while the outdoor dining area remains closed.
“We’ve implemented various health and safety procedures since the pandemic, but with the smoky conditions, our only choice was to close,” Isabel Baer, a representative for the restaurant said, adding that they won’t reopen until the air conditions fall below 100, or within normal range, again.
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