Alameda County bans outdoor dining, effective immediately

Alameda County and Berkeley, which has its own health department, are hoping to secure variances from a new state ruling that came to end outdoor dining at restaurants.

Jupiter in Berkeley was one of many restaurants that reopened for outdoor dining on or after June 19. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Alameda County Public Health Department announced Friday night that, starting immediately, all restaurants, bars and wineries in the county must suspend outdoor dining and revert to takeout and delivery service only. The move comes less than a month after restaurants got the go-ahead to serve diners outdoors, conditional on taking COVID-19-related precautions.

The county’s statement, sent at 9:12 p.m., reveals that health officials were caught off guard by statewide guidance issued Thursday by the California Department of Public Health: “Today we learned the state issued updated guidance, dated July 9th, prohibiting outdoor dining in non-variance counties, which includes Alameda County.”

Restaurants in Alameda County had just been given the green light to serve customers outside three weeks ago, on June 19. Many eateries had set up socially distanced patio tables and found that diners were excited to eat out again. But a recent spike in COVID-19 cases throughout California has caused health officials to reconsider the relaxed reopening measures.

Counties can apply for a variance, or permission, to reopen sit-down dining, but Alameda County was one of two California counties that did not file for a variance. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Alameda County public health officials will apply for the variance to allow for outdoor dining, as well as outdoor drinking.

Berkeley has its own health department and its policies around COVID-19 do not always align with those of the county. But, in a Saturday morning virtual town hall with Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other officials, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley confirmed the new guidelines also apply to Berkeley.

Berkeley is also working to apply for its own variance within the next couple of days to reinstate outdoor dining as soon as possible. At Saturday’s town hall, Arreguín said he respectfully disagreed with the state’s decision and that it represented a step back for local businesses. (Catch up on Berkeleyside’s live coverage of the town hall on Twitter.)

Arreguín said California’s recent increase in coronavirus infections had resulted from the state allowing some counties and businesses to reopen sooner than they should have. But he said the new restrictions shouldn’t apply in places like Berkeley where infection rates remain low.

“Speaking for myself in the city of Berkeley, our infection rate is under 2%, unlike some of our other neighboring jurisdictions,” Arreguín said. “I think we should have the ability to be able to make our own decisions about our own health orders — obviously, it needs to be done in consultation with the state and the county. I think this just highlights an area where, because we have our own health department, it’s beneficial to us because we can implement our own orders and conditions, but at the end of the day we’re also bound by what the state does.”

By the numbers

As of Saturday, Alameda County had 7,725 coronavirus cases and 148 deaths.

Of those, 254 cases and one death were from Berkeley residents. But cases in the city have doubled in the past three weeks, going from 124 at that time to 254 now. Officials say increased testing explains some of the growth, but not all of it.

The recent increases, which have also been seen elsewhere in Alameda County, mean the county is likely to be put on a state watch list, making it subject to additional restrictions from the state, Berkeley officials said Saturday morning.

Berkeleyside reporter Supriya Yelimeli and news editor Emilie Raguso contributed reporting to this story.

Sarah Han is Nosh editor at Berkeleyside. Email: sarah@berkeleyside.com.