How to Reopen Your California Restaurant After Covid-19

Reopening under new, pandemic-era rules brings a raft of challenges and questions. We have you covered, California.
April 29, 2021, 11:01 PM UTC
How to Reopen Your California Restaurant After Covid-19

Eating in Cali had never been so tricky. Since mid-March of 2020, when Gov. Gavin Newsom forbade in-person dining at bars and restaurants across the state, the nearly 80,000 eating establishments in California have navigated a minefield of restrictions and changing guidelines.

At least the state also has permitted the sale of to-go alcohol. And within two months, restaurants had permission to partially reopen. But rising numbers of Covid cases after the state allowed for private gatherings led the state to close even its outdoor dining from Nov. 25 to Jan. 9 during a dry, mild winter. It was a bummer.

Now, with vaccinations rolling out and Covid cases down sharply from their winter highs, bar and restaurant owners are thinking about how to reopen and increase capacity. Here’s everything you need to know.

California's latest Covid guidelines and rules

Your catch-all handbook to the new world order of pandemic and post-pandemic dining is the state’s guidance sheet for restaurants from the Department of Public Health. The 15-page document answers most of your health-related questions in swift fashion and will point you to relevant outside resources.

Your other friend in the reopening process is the California Restaurant Association, which in addition to its catch-all page of Covid resources also maintains an entire separate guide just for re-opening. It draws mostly on state resources, but hey, cover your bases.

The changes to liquor to-go laws are one reason why the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has its own Covid site, which you’ll want to read. Notably: unsealed alcohol to-go has to be sold with a meal. For what it's worth, you may want to dig into third-party delivery platforms, while you're at it.

The state also maintains a list of links to the local resources and requirements in every county in California. While the state sets the standards for each level of open-ness, the counties decide when and how to declare which level is allowed. So be sure to check that out, as well.

Get your business loans and restaurant relief funds

It’s not just the national Restaurant Relief Fund (RRF) you should be trying to tap. California passed some of the most aggressive economic bills in the country that could benefit small restaurant owners. The state exempted small-business PPP loans from state tax, for instance, and offered automatic three-month deferrals for businesses that owe less than $1 million in sales tax.

The state is also on its sixth round of small-business Covid relief grants (until May 4). And the state has waived two years’ worth of liquor license fees for nearly 60,000 bars and restaurants. 

Update your operations and policies

The state public health department has a six-page checklist to get you up to speed as fast as possible. The good news: six isn’t a ton of pages. The less-good news: they’re dense, and full of important things.

The first thing you really need to do is designate a person to create and be responsible for executing a written workplace plan to lay out the risk assessment for your place of business. You have to train your staff, check for compliance, and lay out a plan for what happens if something goes wrong (that is, an outbreak occurs or is suspected).

Most things you’ll change truly are common-sense policies, and for most restaurant employees in particular, they’re going to be intuitive. But be thorough. The particularities of Covid are going to effect every part of your operation. As one for-instance: California suggests arranging your dining room to ensure that every table gets maximum ventilation. It’s little stuff, but little stuff is big stuff.

You’re also going to have to communicate your new policies and protocols to your diners. No plan will work unless they also know what’s up.

How to train your staff on Covid changes

Restaurants are a challenging front-line battleground for Covid, but they do have one key advantage: Its managers and workers already harbor a healthy pro-sanitation paranoia.

Once you determine your new health and safety guidelines, communicate them to your staff, and make sure they know how to convey those new policies to guests. The state also recommends, foremost, training your workers not to come to work if they’re sick. Seems obvious, right? But discouraging them from playing hero is a big deal. The CDC’s guidance for how to self-diagnosis possible Covid symptoms is a great starting point.

California also insists that you train your employees on proper PPE use and provide them masks and gloves. None of this will surprise any of them, surely.

The National Restaurant Association has made an entire course of Covid safety videos available on its site, in English and in Spanish, that will likewise help your staff get up to speed on the latest.

You should let your employees know their sick-leave rights have changed. The Department of Labor has a flyer you can hang, probably near where you already hang a bunch of Department of Labor posters. 

Let your customers know you're open

No point in rolling out the white tablecloths if your customers don’t know you’re back. Check out our full-panel restaurant marketing guide, tailored for the smaller restaurateur working on digital marketing during covid. It’ll help you prepare your customers for new rules or procedures once they arrive at your doorstep. We also have a host of marketing solutions waiting to go, if you find you need new tools for the job.

[Photo by Enric Cruz López from Pexels]