"We made a commitment at the onset of this pandemic to be conservative and ultra-cautious,” reads an email the restaurant sent out on Saturday. "We put the safety of our staff, with responsibility to them and their families, above all else. Due to recent concerning and upward trends in the virus we've respectfully made the decision to immediately close our outdoor patio for full service."
Customers eating outside at Flea St. Cafe on a recent evening with compostable plates and utensils and a tray to maintain some separation between the waiter and diners. Photo courtesy Jesse Cool.
Flea St. had gone beyond public health recommendations in its approach to outdoor dining, including using only compostable plates and utensils, asking diners to serve and bus their own tables and checking customers' temperatures if they went inside to use the bathroom. The goal was reduce as much contact between employees and customers as possible, particularly given most customers weren’t wearing masks while dining.
After "a lot of restless nights," however, owner Jesse Cool and partner Michael Biesemeyer decided to halt outdoor dining, Cool said.
"We decided it was not responsible to put our staff in jeopardy with guests unmasked," she said.
She said it was impossible for staff to provide table service and still keep the required 6 feet away from diners. They worried about the potential risk of cross contamination.
"We appreciate that the public is relieved and excited to get back to some kind of normal," Cool said. "It was not easy, a great loss of revenue, but, for us, no other option if we are truly keeping Flea Street and our staff as safe as possible."
Flea St. will continue to serve takeout and allow customers to eat their to-go food at the outdoor tables, but with no wait service. There will also be live music on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Cool also plans to revive breakfast dishes from Late for the Train, the Menlo Park restaurant she opened with her then-husband Bob Cool in 1976, including tamarind potatoes, eggs pipérade and chilaquiles. People will be able to pick up breakfast items in the evenings for reheating at home the next morning.
Despite the fact that San Mateo County has allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining, with many local owners eager to serve more customers in person after months of takeout, Cool doesn't anticipate opening the Flea St. dining room any time soon.
Taking care of diners is "paramount," Cool said, but not enough attention is being paid to the risks for restaurant workers.
"We all want our business back to where we can take care of our beloved guests," she said. "But at what risk and what cost to the food industry?"