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Piazza D’Angelo restaurant, 35 Miller Ave., May 2020.

For many, these past few months have been among the most turbulent of our lifetimes.

Count Felicia Ferguson among them. The co-owner of Piazza D’Angelo embarked on 2020 with a new baby at home and a new role in the community as president of the Mill Valley Chamber’s board of directors.

Within two months, Ferguson and her cousin and D’Angelo co-owner Luigi Petrone were confronted with the challenge of a lifetime: running a restaurant amidst an emerging health crisis, juggling the health and safety of themselves, their employees and their patrons.

Before long, when the edict via the Marin County Health Office’s shelter in place order came down that restaurants could remain open for takeout and delivery only, Ferguson and Petrone closed the restaurant and furloughed their 70 employees. They created a successful GoFundMe campaign to support those employees and navigated the morass of the federal loan programs. They reopened for takeout and delivery in late April, nervously awaiting guidance for an eventually fuller reopening.

That multi-faceted reopening does not yet have a date attached to it – Marin Public Health Officer Matt Willis will eventually determine that critically important detail – but it is slowly, steadily, coming into view on the horizon.

In a press conference today, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a host of statewide guidelines for restaurants, including: limit the number of patrons at a single table to a household unit or patrons who have asked to be seated together.; using disposable menus and making those menus viewable on a personal digital device; notifying patrons that their table is ready using buzzers so that they can wait at a safe distance from the restaurant; a prohibition on shared resources like buffets, salad bars and bread baskets. The over-arching requirement is to allow for at least six feet of distance between people dining, working, and passing through areas for entry and exit. Servers and staff will need to wear masks. [FULL GUIDELINES HERE].

To accommodate those changes, all restaurants are eyeing a business model that would combine takeout/delivery, some indoor dining at a reduced capacity to allow for a minimum of six feet of social distancing and, with the support of City of Mill Valley officials, increased outdoor dining to lessen the blow of having fewer tables inside the restaurant.

“The key for all of our restaurants is, how can we get as many seats and as many sales as possible in a safe environment,” Ferguson says. “We’re going to do our best in terms of health and safety protocols in our restaurant but we also want the customers to respect these guidelines as well, both for their safety and for that of our staff, who are also putting their health on the line.” 

City officials are working with local restaurants to define options for additional seating In parking spaces adjacent to restaurants and other nearby spaces. The City’s Planning and Building Department is updating an existing outdoor dining application to create a process by which restaurants get approval to add tables outside, and has expressed support for waiving associated fees to do so.

“Phase 3 (which includes dine-in restaurants, hair salons, nail salons, barbershops, gyms, movie theaters and sporting events without live audiences) is not a year away,” Newsom said. “It’s not six months away. It’s not even three months away. It may not even be more than a month away. We just want to make sure we have a protocol in place to secure customer safety, employee safety and allow the businesses to thrive in a way that is sustainable.”

While Newsom has continued to provide statewide guidance toward a measured reopening, County officials have spearheaded Marin Recovers, a website that will serve as the foundation of “a safe and phased reopening,” “convening a group of industry advisors” on industries like restaurants, retail, construction, parks and outdoor activities, general office space, summer camp and youth opportunities, transportation, hotels, personal services and the arts.”

In Marin, certain retail shops, including clothing boutiques, toy stores, florists, sporting goods stores and record stores can open for curbside pickup only May 18, accompanied by new safety and hygiene protocols. On May 15, the Marin Recovers Retail Advisory Group, comprised of local retail industry experts, will issue a Retail Re-Opening Toolkit, which will include a ‘Worksite Specific Re-Opening Plan’ template for small businesses to use to more easily document their plans.

“The vision is really leveraging the thoughtfulness and the work of our business community to bring together something that is bite sized for our health officer to consider and having a way to truly speed up the process,” says Max Korten, the director of Marin County Parks and Open Space, who is also leading the Industry Advisors process.

The restaurant-focused group met this week, including Ferguson and Peter Schumacher, co-owner of Playa, Bungalow 44 and Buckeye Roadhouse. The biggest unknown right now, Ferguson says, is ”how to incorporate the hospitality part of the experience, which is so crucial. It’s going to be awkward and each individual business is going to have to navigate that experience for themselves and their customers.”

Schumacher says he appreciated that the state’s guidelines were as clear as possible, and he hoped the county’s guidelines – the restaurant group is set to finalize its recommendations at a second meeting on May 15 – were equally clear.

“Educating the public is going to be as important as anything else,” Schumacher says. “We don’t want to be policing people – they are our customers. We want our staff and our customers to all feel safe. We will be ready to welcome back our customers in a safe environment as soon as we get the green light to do so.” 

“We appreciate that they (the County) have included us in this part of the process – having our voice heard is going to be extremely important in this,” Ferguson adds. “But we’re also looking to our county leaders for some guidance. This is new for us. We want to do it the right way and make sure that everyone is safe.”

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