When California's first COVID-19 stay-at-home order went into effect back in March, chef Nicola Allegretta, owner of Mama's Meatball and Mistura in SLO, was happy to do whatever he could to help slow the spread.
He closed his restaurants to indoor and outdoor dining, temporarily let go of some staff, and started offering robust takeout and delivery services. As things started opening back up, he purchased several costly air purifiers for both facilities, reduced his seating capacity indoors, put more tables and chairs into his outdoor seating areas, and implemented stringent cleaning procedures and mask policies.
But as the pandemic raged on, Allegretta said things got a lot harder.
He applied for and received one of the first Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the Small Business Administration, but that was back when recipients had to spend the loan within 90 days. That money is long gone now. The ability to offer outdoor dining helped for a while, but now amid another state stay-at-home order that restricts both indoor and outdoor dining, sales between Allegretta's two restaurants are about 70 to 80 percent below what they would normally be. He's only employing about half his normal staff, and even that is becoming difficult to fund.
"It's been a tough year," he told New Times.
- Screenshot From Instagram
- OPEN Some local restaurants, including Mistura and Mama's Meatball, are getting creative and working around the latest stay-at-home order.
Now Allegretta is getting creative. Although his employees aren't allowed to serve customers inside or out, customers can come order meals to go, sit down at the tables outside Mama's Meatball and Mistura, and enjoy their meals there. It's like outdoor dining light, and a number of restaurants are using this loophole in the latest stay-at-home order to draw customers in and stay afloat.
Either that, or they're outright defying the most recent stay-at-home order.
Allegretta isn't going that far, and he's still in compliance with the state order.
"But what do you do? You have to do what you have to do," he said, later adding, "people don't have a job. They don't have resources."
For now, SLO County is allowing restaurants to bend the rules, as long as customers follow the state's rules on masks and gatherings, and restaurants continue to sanitize outdoor tables regularly.
"Because the state guidance for restaurants was not clear on the use of parklets and other public areas to eat takeout, the County of San Luis Obispo decided to allow people to consume takeout meals outdoors at restaurants that have outdoor seating," James Blattler, a spokesperson for the city of SLO, wrote in an email to New Times. "No table service is allowed."
The city is following the county's guidance on that issue, but Blattler said the city is continuing to check in on businesses to ensure that they're complying with the latest stay-at-home order. Since the order went into effect on Dec. 6, the city has received more than 90 complaints related to noncompliance at businesses.
Some restaurants are, of course, taking things further. In an Instagram post published mid-December, Sally Loo's Wholesome Café said it would continue serving coffee and food "on a plate and indoors, if you wish," despite the latest stay-at-home order.
"If we continue allowing them to shut us down, many businesses are going to give up," the post reads. "We refuse to allow the town of SLO to disappear when this is all over."
Michelle Shorseman, a spokesperson for the SLO County Public Health Department, said that if restaurants wish to remain open, they should comply with the state's stay-at-home order and switch over to delivery and takeout. The county has received about 512 complaints regarding businesses out of compliance with the order since it went into effect, and Shoresman said that while the county is largely relying on education and voluntary compliance, more stringent action has been taken in some cases.
"We know that this is a difficult time and that many businesses are struggling through this year," Shoresman said. "It is up to all of us as a community to stand together and help our local businesses by shopping local during this holiday season, getting takeout from our favorite restaurants, and buying gift cards that can be used when the pandemic has changed and the order has been lifted. We can and will get through this, but right now, while case counts rise, we need to take every precaution necessary to help slow the spread." Δ