By Shawn Raymundo

The County of Orange took drastic measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, March 17, ordering all bars to close and for restaurants to only utilize delivery or take-out services.

The order from OC Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick, which also banned all professional, social and community gatherings of any number of people at places of work, did not prohibit household gatherings.

Health and safety operations and businesses deemed essential are not required to close, according to the order. Such businesses include grocery stores, gas stations, banks, laundromats, homeless shelters, home-based care for seniors, hardware stores and plumbers, to name a few.

“All businesses shall enact Social Distancing, increased sanitation standards, and shall make every effort to use telecommuting for its workforce,” the order states. “All businesses shall suspend any policy or procedure requiring doctor verification for sick or other leave approval.”

Effective Tuesday, all bars and drinking establishments that didn’t serve food were ordered to close, while restaurants have been told to close all on-site dining. The ban will remain in effect until April 1.

“All food served shall be by delivery, or through pick-up or drive-thru,” the order explained. “Social Distancing shall be required for persons picking up food on-site.”

The health officer’s order also strongly recommended that anyone over the age of 65 or has serious chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes—or has a compromised immune system—to self-isolate at home.

The county’s directive on Tuesday did leave many in the county, including the city of San Clemente, puzzled by some of the details. During the city council meeting on Tuesday night, Assistant City Manager Erik Sund said the city is working with the county to address some of those questions.

“There’s a lot of questions. Since I’ve been sitting here, I’ve received a number of calls from businesses indicating if we need to close based on this order,” Sund told the council. “The city has a lot of questions and so we’ll be working with the county over the next two business days to get clarification and clarity on that order.”

The county joined the growing list of many cities and counties throughout the state that have taken similar steps in order to curb the coronavirus spread. This past Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out a broad social distancing directive, urging bars to close and restaurants to reduce operations.

On the same day the governor introduced his procedures, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also announced new social distancing guidelines, recommending the cancellation or postponement of all events set to have 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.

This week, the cities of Dana PointSan Clemente and San Juan Capistrano also took radical steps to help prevent the spread of the virus to both residents and staff by closing the doors to public facilities and encouraging citizens to utilize the cities’ online resources.

Officials in San Clemente and San Juan issued seven-day closure notices that went into effect on Monday, March, 16. Dana Point facilities will be closed to the public through the end of the month.

The call for such sweeping restrictions comes as the number of total positive cases in California continues to climb. As of March 17, the California Department of Public Health reported a total of 598 confirmed cases in the state.

The department has reported a total of 13 deaths related to the pandemic. Out of the 598 confirmed positive cases, 392 were found in those between the ages of 18 and 64, while 188 cases were reported in those 65 and older.

In Orange County, the number of total cases reported as of March 17 was at 29, according to the county’s Public Health Care Agency. Fifteen of those cases were travel-related, while five were spread from person-to-person contact, eight were from community spread and one is under investigation.

Across the tri-cities, bars had begun to temporarily shutter while restaurants worked to scale back amid the governor’s request. Bars including the Swallow’s Inn, Rancho Capistrano Winery, Ole’s Tavern, JD’s Kitchen and Bar, and Beachfire Restaurant had temporarily closed their doors.

And restaurants including Pizza Port and Brick in San Clemente and Trevor’s at the Tracks in San Juan Capistrano had been promoting take-out and delivery orders.

Trevor Baird, owner of Trevor’s at the Tracks, called the situation crazy on Monday, March 16, and said he and others were taking it day by day.

Signage the city posted along Avenida Del Mar in Downton San Clemente on Tuesday, March 17, designates parking for customers picking up take-out food orders during the public health crisis. Photo: Shawn Raymundo

But by Tuesday afternoon, downtown San Clemente was no longer the hustling and bustling corridor it typically is. Several businesses were closing their doors, while the city had already posted signs designating parking along Avenida Del Mar for picking up food.

“Normally on Taco Tuesday, we’re packed,” noted Marvin Saenz, a manager at Avila’s El Ranchito, before pointing to a nearly empty dining hall. “But like you see tonight, it’s slow. It’s been like this for that past week, since all of this started.”

Saenz said Tuesday would be the last day for dine-in service, as the plan was to reduce staff by about 75% on Wednesday and only offer take-out services per the county’s direction.

And just up the street at the cheese and wine bar The Cellar, General Manager Christian Zamora was meeting with the other heads of the establishment to figure out next steps, including what to do about their staff.

Signage posted on The Cellar’s door explained to patrons that they can order food and other products to-go online.

“I think what makes us unique is we’re also a retail space, and we have a pretty strong online ordering, take-out platter, cheese platters, and catering program that we have exercised and utilize day in and day out, “ Zamora said. “So we’re equipped right now to function, maybe a little more seamlessly, obviously with this sudden change.”

Stressing that The Cellar team wants what’s best for its staff, Zamora explained Tuesday that what his team is likely to do is lay off everyone, allowing them to collect unemployment benefits during the crisis.

“We definitely want what’s best for our staff, and sometimes the benefits of federal aid aren’t available unless they’re laid off, so our goal is to give everyone an opportunity to have access to those programs,” he explained.

H.H. Cottons in Downtown San Clemente puts out its “closed” sign following the county’s directive Tuesday, March 17, to close all bars. Photo: Shawn Raymundo

Saenz said that there are definitely worries among the staff at El Ranchito.

“I think it’s going to be a huge impact for our servers (and) bartenders,” Saenz said. “Everyone lives from tips, like from salary to checks, so I think it’s going to be a huge change for the next couple of months for us.”

Recognizing the quickly evolving situation, Saenz said the restaurant is willing to abide by the rollout of safety measures if it means protecting the community from the spread.

“What can we do? You know, if it’s going to be for better, we have to do it,” Saenz said. “We have to prepare; we’re doing everything, like we have a lot of hand sanitizer, keeping everything clean, and after the customer left, we wiped the chairs.”

San Juan Capistrano City Manager Ben Siegel said this week that his staff is planning for the potential of significant financial impacts resulting from reduced sales tax and transient occupancy tax (hotel) revenue. 

“Our executive team is actively developing economic contingency plans to ensure that the City will continue to provide critical municipal services to residents and businesses,” Siegel said.

Burton Brown, the chairman for the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce, said that though local shops and restaurants will certainly be taking a hit over the coming weeks, he remained optimistic that the business community will see a significant bounceback once they can reopen.

 “I think this will be short-lived,” he said Monday, adding that after “a few weeks in this, I think we’ll be ready to get the hell out of the house. So, I foresee our restaurants and bars lifting up once people aren’t afraid to go out.”

For now, Burton said, the SC Chamber will continue to follow the guidance set out by the federal and state governments.

“Our position will be to stay in line with the federal and state response,” he said. “We’ll echo that guidance, and hopefully we’ll get out of this thing better than when we got into it.”

The SC Chamber and the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce recently compiled lists of its member restaurants that are offering delivery, to-go and curbside pickup services. Links to those lists can be found in the online version of this story.

Collin Breaux contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: Trevor’s at the Tracks has since announced they are now in a two-week closure.

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