When COVID-19 public health mandates forced the sudden closure of Isla Vista restaurants back in March — necessitating a quick pivot to takeout-only dining — local eateries didn’t know what the future would hold. Now, nine months later, some owners are attempting to return to normalcy, while others are still searching for new solutions.
Business operations allowed under the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department have varied over the summer and into the fall. A brief reopening period in June was followed by a mandated closure of indoor restaurants, bars, gyms and similar businesses on July 1, as previously reported by the Nexus. Beginning in early October, restaurants were permitted to fill their indoor seating at up to 25% capacity or with fewer than 100 people, depending on whichever number is smaller, KEYT News reported.
But on Nov. 17, Santa Barbara County rejoined the state’s most restrictive reopening tier, rolling back previous guidance for indoor seating by eliminating it entirely, according to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
Woodstock’s Pizza Co-owner Laura Ambrose said in an interview with the Nexus that the pizza parlor quickly began offering limited indoor dining when the county gave the go-ahead in early October, and continues to host outdoor dining on a newly built parklet that extends onto the street.
“As quickly as things change, we want to be on it,” Ambrose said.
Ambrose also mentioned the relaunch of Pint Night, a popular attraction offering beer and pizza at reduced prices, as well as a possible return of trivia games if social distancing restrictions ease up down the line.
Other restaurateurs, like Buddha Bowls Owner Daniel Dunietz, have taken a more gradual approach to reopening.
“We haven’t even set up outdoor tables, simply because I am trying to gauge my staff and balance it all,” Dunietz said.
“I am not confident that it would actually increase sales in a meaningful way,” he continued. “With a certain level of irresponsibility among the Isla Vista community that my staff absolutely picks up on, I want to avoid having large groups of partygoers walking around the store.”
While restaurant staff in I.V. are working to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines, customers — most of whom are college students — have expressed wariness of eating in person at restaurants where other customers may not be taking necessary safety precautions.
Sara Chong, a first-year economics and accounting major, said she still doesn’t feel comfortable eating indoors due to the number of COVID-19 cases in I.V., currently at 474, noting frequent parties in the area.
“All the restaurants have been mandating the mask policy, but not everyone is standing six feet apart from each other,” Chong explained.
Ambrose said that many students were not only comfortable eating indoors, but some didn’t notice or value sanitization efforts provided by the staff.
“For the most part, [college students] still feel like, ‘Eh, what is the worst that can happen?’” Ambrose said. “They don’t seem to be overly concerned. We try really hard to social distance and follow cleanliness standards now required by the state but it’s funny that the students will come in, shove the dirty dishes aside and sit right down where someone else just was.”
Though indoor dining is currently prohibited, Mojo Asian Fusion Café Owner Boxi Wang noted that the reopening of indoor dining in October didn’t drastically change his day-to-day business.
“A small percentage of people do like sitting down and drinking and eating while chatting with their friends, but most of them are still ordering to-go or delivery,” he explained. Due to Mojo Café’s location on Seville Road — a narrower street in I.V. — Wang said outdoor dining is not a possibility.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shifted restaurant owners’ focus onto the work schedule, as keeping staff aboard and working regular hours has been important — but sometimes tricky — to manage.
“The issue is that people need hours and there’s just not enough hours to give,” Dunietz said. “One of the ways I can cut costs is by working more, but that pushes people off the schedule who are qualified, well-trained and need the money. It has been one of the most difficult challenges.”
Both Ambrose and Dunietz noted that many of their workers are students — a common I.V. restaurant practice — and that a majority of them moved back to their respective hometowns when UC Santa Barbara switched to remote learning. Since then, some have returned for Fall Quarter 2020, while others remain at home, Ambrose said.
With the winter season approaching, colder weather and a likely uptick in COVID-19 cases looms over the future of I.V.’s restaurant scene.
Some owners, like Dunietz, remain hopeful.
“From day one, [COVID-19] has reminded me of when I started — every day is a struggle and I’m just trying to hope for the best. The difference is, in this case, I know it will turn around. I know I have a working model,” he said. “I know I have a product that people love.”