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Contra Costa County, site of Bay Area’s fewest COVID-19 cases, reopens restaurants for outdoor dining

Walnut Creek residents Paul and Kassey King are tucked into a socially-distanced corner bench at downtown’s Modern China Cafe on Monday, enjoying steamed vegetables, won ton soup and a bit of what everyone is calling “getting back to normal.”

“I’m elated to be outside enjoying a meal again,” Kassey King said between nibbles of broccoli. “We’ve saved a lot of money being home. It’s time to spend it.”

After nearly three months, this county, which has had the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in the five-county Bay Area, loosened lockdown restrictions beginning at 5 p.m. June 5 to allow outside dining at restaurants that follow health, safety and social distancing guidelines.

Diners across the county shared King’s sentiment. From San Ramon to El Cerrito, people eager to have a restaurant experience — and hang up their oven mitts for a change — trickled into patios where masked servers shared disposable menus and warm, smiling eyes.

Santa Clara County, site of the nation’s first COVID-19 death, was the first to reopen for outdoor dining on Friday, followed by Contra Costa County and San Mateo County, which lifted restrictions Saturday. Alameda County officials have yet to remove that county’s ban on outdoor dining. In San Francisco County, dining alfresco is scheduled to restart June 15.

At Lokanta Grill & Bar, a Mediterranean restaurant in Walnut Creek, owner Fevzi Dinc was only able to fit four tables in his small patio and still maintain the required six feet of distance. But he was thrilled to see those tables mostly filled on Monday.

“Even with the limited seating I still had the most business I’ve had in months,” said Dinc, referring to traffic on Sunday, the day he reopened. “People are enjoying it. I bet it feels good for them. It’s been a while.”

Too long, if you ask Kay Clark, a nurse anesthetist, and her daughter, Abbie. The Walnut Creek residents sipped cocktails in the sunshine as Dinc delivered a flaming halloumi cheese appetizer to their table. “The weather is beautiful and it feels so good to be served a meal again,” said Clark, adding that she also wants to support local businesses at this time.

Farther west, in El Cerrito, Los Moles Beer Garden reopened its large patio on Monday. Owner Lito Saldana would’ve opened sooner but he said restaurants weren’t given much notice of the change. He needed to replenish his inventory after months of spotty takeout and delivery.

Now, the beer garden holds about 30 tables, mostly two-tops, and Saldana is anticipating regulars for Taco Tuesday — without the popular buffet, of course. He is offering drinks specials, like $5 micheladas, to ensure “everyone can come out and still save money” and is finding solutions to shared dishes, like chips and guacamole.

“We’re going to offer several spoons so people can serve their own on their plates,” he said. “We may also give each person a tostada instead of chips.”

Over in Lafayette, friends and fellow kindergarten teachers Kelly Power of Berkeley and Meg Mulvaney of Lafayette enjoyed lunch at Tutu’s, the organic restaurant and market.

“I’m excited not to do dishes,” Mulvaney said, smiling as she paid the bill. When asked about her comfort level dining out for the first time, she said that the distanced tables and masked servers were in her comfort zone. “We’ve been in this [pandemic] for so long. I also have to live my life.”

Claudio Cravero, director of operations for Tutu’s, said he found out about the lifted ban four hours before it went into effect, and had trouble securing staff on such short notice. So he opened for counter service over the weekend and at one point had a line of 15 wrapped around the builidng.

“I think people are just anxious to get out,” he said. “They kept calling us to see if we were open.”

Tutu’s is taking reservations and walk-ins for its reduced-capacity patio — 15 tables including the two his landlord allowed him to put on the outskirts of the building — and offering a modified menu based on the ingredients Cravero could find. Wonton skins, organic vanilla ice cream and organic pork chops have been hard to source, he said.

Based on business over the weekend, if there’s one thing Esin deClarion plans to keep well-stocked at her Costra Costa County restaurants, including the newest, Lafayette’s Social Bird Kitchen and Bar, it is booze. The co-owner of Danville’s Esin Restaurant & Bar and Revel Kitchen & Bar opened all three patios on Friday and said they were “packed” — relatively speaking.

“Unfortunately, it’s really limited seating by the time you space them six feet apart, but it is still exciting,” said deClarion, who said guests were enjoying “a lot of drinks” or a glass of wine with their alfresco meals. “I think to get out feels really great for everyone. People are ready.” So is she.

“After three months of not seeing a guest it was wonderful to see people,” deClarion said.

Among the rules for outdoor dining:

— All tables must be separated to allow six feet of social distancing.

— Only residents of a single household or living unit may be seated together.

— Each table is limited to six members of the same household or living unit.

— Alcohol may be sold only with a meal.

— Bar areas must remain closed.

— Restaurants that open for outdoor dining must also offer takeout and delivery meals as an alternative.

— State and local protocols for restaurant and employee health and safety must be followed.

— Patrons must wear face coverings except when sitting at the dining table with other members of their household or living unit.

— Patrons dining at the facility must wear a mask to enter the restaurant to use the restroom or access an outdoor seating area.

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