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On the Day We Reopened Our Restaurant, We Had to Close It Again

We spent a month preparing to safely reopen our restaurant. Five hours after opening our doors, the state made us close again.

An empty booth at Guerrilla Tacos next to a wall mural showing a silhouette of Jonathan Gold and the words “The Taco Honors the Truck.”
A booth at Guerrilla Tacos
Colin Wolf

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It is July 1, 2020, a little after 8:30 a.m. In just a few hours, we are finally going to reopen our dining room for the first time since lockdown orders went into effect in Los Angeles on March 16. Since Day One of the lockdown, we have innovated and adapted to keep the lights on in our taco restaurant, with a small takeout and delivery operation that employed 10 percent of our original staff. Now, I’m excited and nervous; these are uncertain times and we never know what’s coming next.

At 8:36 a.m., I receive an email from the Independent Hospitality Coalition, a group of California hospitality industry workers that I belong to. “Hearing from our people that the governor is going to announce that restaurants in some counties (including LA) will be closing indoor dining rooms at his noon press conference today,” it says.

I immediately grab my chefs and managers and tell them the news. There is silence for a while, during which I think about everything we did to get to this day to reopen. My stomach drops and I begin to rant. They never should have let us open, I say. We all knew this was going to happen.

I text my good friend and mentor, Melissa, the director of operations at République. She tells me that she is hearing the same thing. République opened not long after restaurants were first told they could reopen on May 29, and even as one of the best-run restaurant operations in LA, it has been hard for them. People are not ready to eat out, and too many of those who are are not taking the masks and social distancing seriously.

So I ask myself: Now what do we do?

In the two weeks leading up to this morning, we did 32 full hours of training on new COVID-19 protocols and safety measures and the importance of taking the pandemic seriously. We updated our menu, purchased the PPE required for reopening safely, invested in training, redesigned the restaurant’s layout, and did construction to create more space and incorporate plexiglass dividers. I could see, even through their masks and face shields, that my staff was excited and comfortable about reopening, and to have jobs again. We were doing everything by the book and taking the time needed to do it right. We had hope!

And now, this morning, we still have a restaurant to open. But all I can do is wait for the governor’s press conference, which is still 90 minutes away.

At 10:45 a.m., our GM, Gretel, does the line-up as if nothing is wrong. Spirits are so high among our staff, and we don’t want to bring them down. But I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to come next.

At 11 a.m., I go hide in my office. My partner, Dan, arrives at the restaurant to console me. The staff was so excited, and now I’m going to have to furlough them all again. I can’t take it, and I start crying. For the last four months, I’ve been on the verge of a mental breakdown, and now I think Dan is concerned that this will push me over the edge.

When LA County told us that restaurants could reopen on May 29, I also heard the news from my friends in the Independent Hospitality Coalition. I didn’t believe them: There was no way we could reopen without any warning. Well, I was dead wrong — we were given the green light to reopen on the “honor system,” meaning that if we followed all of the county’s guidelines and safety rules, we could open that same night.

Less than an hour after the announcement, I got a message from my landlord’s broker. “Congratulations on being able to reopen,” he said. My heart sank as my mind translated his message into: “Send the check when you can!”

Shortly after, I was on a call with the Independent Hospitality Coalition. No one I spoke with was feeling ready to reopen. Our dining rooms had turned into dry storage, our staff was furloughed. But our members were already driving past restaurants that had reopened, hastily “complying” with the guidelines. How could anyone have done it safely in 24 hours? We knew this was a problem: With no lead-in time to prepare, restaurant operators were being rewarded for rushing to open, and their prize was making as much money as quickly as possible.

I wanted to stay closed. However, as other restaurants began to open their dining rooms and people grew more eager to leave the house, our takeout business started to fall steeply. With our PPP funds drying up, I had to make the call to reopen as safely as humanly possible. As we began preparing, the team spent so much time thinking about our customers and our staff: How do we keep them safe? How do we behave as responsible members of our community?

But even as we were holding ourselves to this standard, we had empathy for the operators who had just rolled the dice and said “fuck it” and decided to open. It is desperate times for restaurants, and many of us feel as though we have no choice: As operators, we work 12- to 14-hour days and typically haven’t been able to pool enough of our time or financial resources to be in the back pocket of the politicians making decisions.

Now, as I wait for the governor’s announcement, I ask myself what’s changed since May 29. Back then, our county didn’t meet any of the state’s requirements for reopening. And we still don’t. I feel completely abandoned by our leaders, and like we’ve lost for trying to comply and be as safe and careful as possible.

Recently, there was a bill in the California State Senate that really could have made a restaurant industry comeback possible during COVID-19: SB 939. It basically required landlords to enter rent renegotiations with tenants, and it would have given tenants and small businesses leverage to walk away without consequence if they couldn’t make it work. Members of the IHC, myself included, reached out to state senators, and many spoke with us. But when the bill reached the appropriations committee in late June, it was killed by real estate groups with money. Before the committee voted on the bill, we could not even get a Zoom meeting with state Sen. Anthony J. Portantino, its LA-based chair. We — the small businesses that employ almost half of California’s citizens and are on the ground trying to work with our landlords — mattered too little to him. When IHC contacted him after the bill died, he said he had no clue that landlords were not negotiating with tenants. We’ve since met with many politicians who have echoed the same sentiment: They truly believe that most landlords are working with tenants. In my experience, this is not the case.

Our elected officials’ total lack of consideration for a whole industry is unforgivable; anyone who loves going to restaurants or grabbing a drink after work should be pissed. If I was feeling petty, I would suggest every restaurant refuse service to politicians. Instead, I’m focusing on the Restaurants Act, a new bill being proposed in the Senate in Washington D.C. that could save us; it would establish a $120 billion relief fund that would be used to provide grants to independent restaurants. My true hope is that we can mobilize the restaurant industry to get it passed. Enjoying good food is a bipartisan issue.

As a woman of color, it feels wrong to be upset about this, given the systemic racist bullshit that is being protested around the country, and the basic equality and liberty that some of us are denied as its citizens. I am pulled back and forth between being upset as an operator and being upset as a non-Black person of color.

At 12 p.m., I listen to the governor confirm the earlier rumors: Restaurants are closed again.

Again, I ask myself, what do I do now? I am just out here trying to survive, trying to build generational wealth, trying to employ a great team of people. I am angry. As a woman, I am angry. As a small business owner, I am angry. As a non-Black person of color, I am angry. There is no winning for the little guys. We are under the boot of big business, politicians with price tags, and a system that has set us up to fail. Before the pandemic, it was easy to ignore these long-standing truths; I was busy and hustling. But now, it is impossible. And it’s one reason that Dina Samson, the co-owner of Rossoblu, and I, have been working on a project we tried to start before the pandemic: a guide to help educate our local leaders on how difficult it is to operate a restaurant in the city and how they can help. The pandemic has forced us to make time to do it.

At 4 p.m., we close our dining room. After a month of planning, it was open for five hours. We’re back to where we were before May 29, but now with less funds, too much inventory, and the dashed hopes of 45 people.

At 4:34 p.m., the chefs, managers, and I are sitting around a table. We’ve been here twice before: when the lockdown orders were announced in March, and when the dine-in orders were announced in May. We’ll adapt again. We always do.

At 6:13 p.m., the managers call our employees to furlough them again.

Brittney Valles is the longtime managing partner of Guerrilla Tacos, a restaurant in Los Angeles.