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Business owners reeling as COVID restrictions return
business covid
Downtown restaurant First & Main is just one of several businesses that has applied for an outdoor dining permit, allowing more space for customers as indoor dining is restricted once again. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal
Just over a month after restaurateurs in Turlock got the go-ahead to reopen their indoor dining operations, orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday shut them back down — and they’re feeling the pain.

Stanislaus County was included in a list of jurisdictions that Newsom said would need to halt operations at a host of businesses this week, including indoor dining, family entertainment centers, bars and other sectors — all establishments which promote the mixing of populations beyond households and makes social distancing and/or wearing face coverings difficult.

The orders come as coronavirus cases spike locally and are expected to last a minimum of three weeks.

Leroy Walker, part owner of downtown Turlock restaurants Bistro 234 and First & Main, chose not to keep the dining establishments open during the first shutdown, which began in mid-March and ended toward the end of May. The choice was a tough one, but Walker felt that his restaurants weren’t prepared to handle an onslaught of curbside and to-go orders at that time.

Between the two businesses, Walker said between $15,000 to $20,000 worth of perishable food was lost due to the shutdown. Still, they were able to reopen once indoor dining was allowed to resume in May. While the loss caused by this week’s second shutdown will be much more manageable, it’s still not the news Walker had hoped for.

“In the back of my mind I had a sneaking feeling that something would happen, so we kept our inventory down and made our menus smaller,” he said.

Both restaurants originally enjoyed a steady rise in customers after reopening, but when the statewide mask mandate went into effect June 19, Walker noticed a significant decrease in patrons. While the establishments are adapting to the COVID-19 era, the true impact of indoor restrictions won’t be known immediately. Still, both restaurants are currently offering outdoor dining, to-go options and curbside pickup. A more robust to-go menu in the works, Walker said, that will hopefully bring some of the restaurants’ ambiance into the community’s homes.

“There was still obviously fear among staff when we reopened, but we’re learning how to adapt and navigate to try and protect everyone as best as possible, both our clients and employees,” Walker said. “Businesswise, at some point in time we have to figure out how to navigate this.”

Walker was granted temporary outdoor operations permits from the City of Turlock for both Bistro 234 and First & Main to expand current seating, which will come in handy since outdoor dining is still allowed. He estimates that the permits will allow him to seat an additional 20 to 25 seats at each restaurant, helping to ease the impact of losing indoor seating.

In addition to the cost of the temporary permit, Walker will have to purchase additional seats, umbrellas and red rope to provide more outdoor dining space.

“As long as it’s in front of my building, I can utilize all that space. That’s my understanding of it,” Walker said. “It’s a minor investment to keep my business open.”

According to City Manager Toby Wells, two other restaurants have also applied for outdoor permits, Shrimpy’s and Latif’s by Pedretti. Other businesses who already have plenty of outdoor seating will continue to operate, like La Mo and Loza Wine & Crepes. Dust Bowl closed on Wednesday, but will reopen its Fulkerth taproom next week with outdoor dining options, they announced on Facebook.

Wells added that community members have come to him with the idea of closing down streets to allow for even more outdoor seating, as some other cities have done.

“In regards to road closures, we are open to other options and continue to listen to all requests to help our business community through these challenging times,” Wells said. “But, we also have to be careful relative to the statewide order relative to events and gatherings to ensure that what we permit doesn’t lead to any unintended consequences.”

One Turlock business that has plenty of space for outdoor seating is the Ten Pin Fun Center, which received word it would have to close once more just two days after reopening on June 29. The organization’s employees had recently completed a rigorous COVID-19 training program and implemented safety precautions throughout the entertainment center.

“After all the hard work we did and weeks of preparation….I announced the new orders to my employees yesterday and when I saw the looks on their faces I was sick to my stomach,” Ten Pin General Manager Mike Eggert said. “We were completely prepared and everybody here worked so hard.”

While bowling, arcade games, laser tag and indoor dining have been shut down once again at Ten Pin, the kitchen and bar will continue to serve customers on the outdoor patios. In order to purchase a drink, food must be ordered as well under state guidelines.

Eggert said he wished the state would implement a grading system, rather than enforcement task forces Newsom has discussed, to see which businesses were properly following guidelines and allow them to stay open. Though they had only been reopened for two days, customers were already returning to bowl, eat and drink, Eggert added.

“We even had customers coming up to us thanking us for how clean and distanced everything was,” he said. “I did not see this coming. I did not. We worked so hard and we followed every rule of guidelines from the CDC and the California Department of Public Health. We followed all the guidelines and they just shut us down. It was just very disheartening and very sad for us.”