It was the fourth week of the shelter-in-place order that finished off a Sonoma County restaurant called Bistro 29.
“I’m just officially done,” said owner Brian Anderson, who along with his wife had spent years building the business.
Anderson had battled the local government’s parking policies and problems caused by the city’s homeless population. More than one wildfire had ravaged the balance sheet. But the statewide shutdown was the last straw. Or maybe the last straw was the statement by Gov. Gavin Newsom that when the state eventually reopens, new “expectations” about floor plans would include a 50 percent cut in the seating capacity of restaurants, with nobody allowed to stand at the bar.
The California Restaurant Association sent a letter to Newsom at the end of March warning that as many as 30,000 California restaurants could close their doors for good as a result of the state order to limit their business to takeout and delivery. Calling it a “near decimation” of the restaurant industry, the group said the state has “a moral obligation to take equally aggressive steps to address the economic harm caused by these measures.”
Good luck with that. Judging by previous laws and policies, the state government thinks restaurants have a moral obligation to participate in a mandatory program of social and environmental justice.
Take the minimum wage, for example. In the spring of 2016, the California Restaurant Association watched in horror as Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature took less than 24 hours to enact a minimum wage law that ratchets up labor costs to $15 an hour and beyond, plus all the additional costs such as workers comp and payroll taxes.
The California Restaurant Association has asked the governor to use his authority to delay the upcoming minimum wage increases to help beleaguered restaurants stay afloat. But the same labor groups that fought for the minimum wage law are vowing to oppose any effort to delay the scheduled wage hikes.
Quick math test: How much is $15 an hour times zero hours?
The restaurant business is labor-intensive, so restaurants really feel it when the state imposes mandates like the one passed in 2015, which required employers to give their workers three days a year of paid leave.
Long before coronavirus, some restaurants were adding surcharges to customers’ checks to cover what they called “the increased cost of operations in the State of California.” The last time you carried out a pizza, your receipt may have listed a service charge described with the words, “Fee partially offsets the rising costs in CA.”
These rising costs include fuel, utility bills and the cost of food. One reason these are more expensive in California than in other states is our cap-and-trade program, implemented about a decade ago to fight climate change. The program aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by requiring refineries and utilities to buy permits to emit GHG. The cost of the permits is passed through to consumers as higher electricity rates, higher fuel costs and higher transportation costs for everything, including food.
Then there are environmental laws that require special air-quality permits for restaurant equipment such as water heaters and grills. And then there are higher costs from state and local laws that seek to limit the volume of trash headed to landfills.
There’s a constant drumbeat of new laws and proposed laws regarding workforce scheduling, paid leave, sexual harassment training and lactation rooms.
There’s the constant threat of a lawsuit under the state’s Private Attorney General Act for a violation of labor law, accessibility, or Prop. 65, which requires warning signs for the use of cleaning products and for naturally occurring chemicals in baked goods.
It’s not easy to be in business in California. And then the state found a way to make it impossible.
Restaurants that are trying to hang on through the stay-at-home lockdown have a chance to survive if they’re allowed to operate normally before too long.
But all bets are off if Newsom issues edicts to enforce social distancing on a semi-permanent and possibly recurring basis. Restaurants that are owner-operated small businesses will bleed out and die. Corporate-owned restaurants with Washington lobbyists will be the only survivors.
COVID-19 may get the blame, but Agatha Christie could have worn out a typewriter listing the suspects in this murder.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News