With approximately 29 major wildfires burning across California, the region’s air quality has been unhealthy.

Local businesses, particularly restaurants, were already struggling with patronage due to restrictions imposed by the state to combat the transmission of COVID-19, and the current air quality situation isn’t helping their efforts when outdoor dining is the only option available to them under the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy – the framework for reopening the economy during the ongoing pandemic.

On Wednesday, local Assemblyman James Gallagher encouraged local businesses to not wait for the state’s go-ahead and resume indoor dining as soon as possible because of the smoke and bad air quality. 

Gallagher acknowledged that those businesses that do defy state directives run the risk of penalty – one obvious example would be losing a liquor license from the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control – but considering the circumstances, he said, he wouldn’t blame any business owner who takes that chance.

Bi-County Health Official Dr. Phuong Luu said she was aware of the recent temporary allowance for indoor operations in Butte County. She said she has elevated the issue during poor air quality periods to the California Department of Public Health for their review and is awaiting a response.

“Please note that per state’s directive, indoor restaurants dining is not allowed in counties within the purple tier (which both Yuba and Sutter are),” she said. “Any deviation from state’s health directives place at risk the counties’ CARES Act funding.”

Due to the smoke and poor air quality, Gallagher said, it’s more dangerous now for patrons to be outside than it is to be inside.

“Honestly, I think businesses should ignore the blueprint. I think they should follow the best practices and safety guidelines, in terms of ensuring social distancing, requiring masks indoors and maintaining proper health and hygiene practices, but otherwise I think every business should open,” Gallagher said.

At least one area jurisdiction agrees with him. Butte County Public Health notified businesses within its jurisdiction on Wednesday that they can now allow for indoor dining temporarily – a decision, officials stated, spurred by the county’s poor air quality and evacuations due to multiple fires in the region.

Businesses within Butte County that do open up indoor operations would still have to abide by strict standards, which include limiting capacity to no more than 25 percent; ensuring tables are spaced apart enough to maintain social distancing; and requiring employees to wear facial coverings as well as patrons while walking around the facility. County health officials stated the reopening would only be temporary and that businesses would be required to return to outdoor dining when the air quality improves and evacuations are lifted.

Gallagher said he agrees with the various safety guidelines health officials have implemented, though he doesn’t think the state’s restriction on indoor dining makes much sense.

“We’ve just directed that barbershops and hair salons can open with safety protocols indoors. There’s absolutely no difference between them and restaurants,” Gallagher said.


Yuba-Sutter impact

A few months ago, before the state established new guidelines, Yuba-Sutter restaurants were allowed to resume indoor operations, with certain modifications to mitigate the chance of virus transmission. At that time and ever since, Yuba-Sutter health officials have maintained that the leading cause of transmission in the area comes down to residents getting together for private social gatherings.

“Think about that, those are things that we have very little ability to control. It’s hard to control what people are going to do in their private life, whether it be in their backyard or going to some function. All we can do is provide public education, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Gallagher said.

“But those are things that we cannot enforce, and meanwhile, we put all of the burden on businesses who aren’t the cause of the cases. People are being put out of business and shutdown because of things that are completely beyond their control. That doesn’t seem fair to me.”

Even when new cases per day were at their highest in the area, Gallagher said, the local hospital was nowhere near overwhelmed, which was an important factor in the push to flatten the curve of transmissions. He said the closures and state-imposed requirements are crushing local businesses, and that will have a big impact on more than just them.

“Let’s not pretend that we are doing them a favor by letting them do outdoor dining,” Gallagher said. “When all of this is said and done, we are going to lose a lot of businesses and revenues that pay for a lot of this stuff, including Public Health.”

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