Photo by John Kennedy

Local restaurant Mariscos Las Islitas is serving customers under a tent, in order to comply with the recent health order.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise at record rates throughout California, local businesses once again brace for economic losses under another round of mandatory lockdowns. For the city of Galt, located in Sacramento County, that means businesses must return to purple tier restrictions: the first stage in the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”

This latest rollback leaves restaurant owners and staff worried about the near future, since the new restrictions require that restaurants only operate outdoors. As the weather grows colder, these establishments find it harder to keep the same business as even the first round of lockdowns in the spring.

“We’ve had to rely mostly on takeout orders since the new lockdown,” said Esmeralda Perez, host and server at Las Islitas Mariscos. “Since not a lot of people are dining outside, we have two cooks and fewer servers working.”

Now an employee at Las Islitas for two years, Perez notes that other employees at the restaurant fear staff cuts should business continue at this rate. In years past, Perez says the restaurant is usually busy during the holiday season. Though, as that time of year now approaches, “it’s been a lot slower here” she said. “It’s just something we have to get used to.”

According to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association, one in six restaurants closed in the first six months of the pandemic in the United States. The latest lockdowns in California, combined with a higher rate of positive cases, offer no more respite for restaurants than at the start of the pandemic.

“The county regulations feel punitive for small businesses,” said Kirk Smith, owner of Velvet Grill and Creamery. “What is meant to keep us safe is actually hurting small businesses’ ability to survive.”

For Smith, operating in a large county filled with varying populations of communities challenges the prospects of reopening.

“There shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach for a city that’s as large as one small area of Sacramento.”

The city of Galt has maintained its public cooperation with Sacramento County’s latest COVID-19 business restrictions.

Heriberto Mosqueda, owner of Papas and Wings, finds that customers are more unwilling to dine at the restaurant, with or without the public health order. Like Perez, Mosqueda attributes this to the changing weather, but also to the concern customers have over dining out amid the pandemic.

“We’re investing in outdoor heaters,” Mosqueda said, “But we’re still not as busy as before.”

In particular, he explained, service at the bar declined even during the relaxation of the lockdown a few weeks prior. Per county regulations, bars and taprooms may operate outside if they offer seated food and drink service.

Some restaurants have seen an extreme drop in business. George Duenas, owner of El Rodeo, said that his restaurant has taken an 80% hit, despite having outdoor seating. And although El Rodeo has been in Galt for 27 years, Duenas said that outside-of-the-area food trucks popping up around town have contributed to a decline in customers.

According to Sacramento County Public Health, Galt has reported 923 cumulative COVID-19 cases as of Friday with eight deaths. With the town’s population of just over 26,000, that makes the per capita infection rate in Galt larger than any other city in the county (excluding the small community of Isleton in the south, which has seen comparable statistics). With trends pointing to a rise of cases across California, the closures facing restaurants are likely to remain through the winter months.

“We’re hoping we can go without having to invest too much capital back into the restaurant.” Mosqueda said. Beyond that, “we’ll try our best as long as we have business.