/Newsoms French Laundry dinner sparks questions about outdoor dining definition

Newsoms French Laundry dinner sparks questions about outdoor dining definition



Outdoor dining

The state recommends limiting the number of patrons seated at a table to a single household or to “patrons who have asked to be seated together,” but doesn’t specify a number and says they don’t need to be six feet apart. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

OAKLAND — Does a fancy open garage count as an outdoor dining venue?

That’s the question prompted by pictures that emerged this week of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s dinner with friends and lobbyists at the posh French Laundry in Yountville.

The photos, taken by another dinner patron and obtained by Fox LA, show Newsom sitting at a round table for 12 in a dining room that is enclosed on three sides and covered. In his Monday apology for attending the dinner, Newsom stressed repeatedly that the event was outdoors, a qualifier that in the pandemic era implies safer conditions due to natural air circulation that reduces transmission.

The definition of outdoor dining has suddenly become ever more important, given that Newsom has forced 94 percent of the population to abide by rules that only allow outdoor restaurant operations. The governor moved quickly Monday to assign 41 counties to the most-restrictive purple tier in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. At least one other county, San Francisco, has already done the same even though it is not required to shut indoor dining rooms.

“That is not outside,” said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association in San Francisco, after viewing the photos of the governor dining with guests to celebrate the 50th birthday of lobbyist Jason Kinney.

California restaurant owners are already confused about what constitutes outdoor dining. State guidance limits private gatherings to no more than three households and says that they should take place outside. Those rules also say that private venues must have three open sides for air circulation to qualify as outdoor.

The three-side rule is repeated in other state guidelines for outdoor cardrooms and outdoor salons.

But no such rule exists in the state’s restaurant guidance. The state recommends limiting the number of patrons seated at a table to a single household or to “patrons who have asked to be seated together,” but doesn’t specify a number and says they don’t need to be six feet apart.

Equally unclear is the guidance on what kind of structures a restaurant can use for outdoor dining. The only state definition appears to be under the July 13 rules for general business outdoor operations, but it is not specific to restaurants.

That guidance allows outdoor operations “under a tent, canopy, or other sun shelter, but only as long as no more than one side is closed, allowing sufficient outdoor air movement.” The French Laundry gathering was in a private fixed annex called the Board Room, based on a photo on the restaurant’s website.

Officials from the California Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for clarification about whether the tent and canopy guidance applied to restaurants.

California Restaurant Association spokeswoman Sharokina Shams said restaurants adhere to the state rules, unless the county guidance is stricter. A spokeswoman for Napa County, where the French Laundry is located, said the county is following the state guidance and has not issued additional rules. Napa County was in the second-least restrictive orange tier until Monday, when the governor moved it to the most-restrictive purple.

Santa Clara County is one of just a handful of counties statewide with clear guidance on outdoor dining structures. Under the county’s guidance, any temporary or permanent structure such as a canopy must have at least 50 percent of the perimeter open to the outdoors.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s Thomas on Wednesday clarified outdoor dining guidance for her members, which in San Francisco means that no more than one vertical side of any tent, canopy or other structure can be closed.

Thomas said she hopes that at least two sides of any structure will be allowed to remain open, especially with the advent of cooler temperatures.

Even outdoor dining could become a thing of the past in some parts of the state if the rise in cases continues unabated.

In Los Angeles County, which has never budged from the purple tier since the rollout of the state’s reopening framework nearly three months ago, health officials plan to end outdoor dining if the average daily case count reaches 4,000 over a five-day period, or hospitalizations hit 1,750. A Los Angeles Times analysis reports that five-day average at 2,800.

Still, Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s public health department, said hitting those thresholds wasn’t inevitable. “I hope with every single bone in my body that we don’t get there,” she said at a press briefing Wednesday.

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