Tim Whyte | Does the Virus Understand Steak vs. Nachos?

Tim Whyte

It was a Sunday afternoon in March. My wife and I were at one of our favorite spots, a local micro-brewery, unwinding and enjoying an afternoon break. We went there fairly often — often enough that we had a favorite bartender (Hi Sara!) who got to know us, and whenever we visited the brewery we would exchange updates on life, kids, etc.

At the time, COVID-19 was just starting to lead the headlines here in the U.S., and there was increasing talk that there might be things like stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns, but none of that had hit quite yet.

At a table near us was a group of mostly seniors, and we overheard them talking about how they had just returned from a cruise. I made a mental note to socially distance, because even then, the health experts were advocating it, and cruise ships had already made news for COVID-19 outbreaks. 

No one was wearing a mask yet.

Sometime around my second beer, the news broke online, and you could see pretty much everyone looking at their phones simultaneously: Gov. Gavin Newsom had called for the immediate shutdown of all bars and restaurants.

One of the bartenders, upon hearing the news, looked out at the gathered patrons and said, “Uh, I guess this is last call?”

It was.

Here we are, nearly seven months later, and this weekend, breweries and wineries are opening again — sort of. Assuming a brewery or winery jumps through all of the proper hoops, that is. And, the hoops they have to jump through, relative to other businesses, seem almost punitive.

The state and county governments have been picking winners and losers since the pandemic began. Wal-Mart? Winner. Grocery stores? Winners.

Restaurants? Theme parks? Bars? Hair and nail salons? Losers, all. 

And the governor, as he reiterated this week, is in “no hurry” to reopen things like theme parks, which I’m sure is reassuring to all those thousands of out-of-work theme park employees.

On certain levels, I get it. I’d never advocate an unsafe opening of a type of business where the risk of virus spread is too high. But the uneven treatment of some businesses vs. others is confounding. In the midst of spring, you could go to Wal-Mart if you wanted to buy a book. But you couldn’t go to a bookstore, even if they followed all the same restrictions and required masks, social distancing, and so on.

Cripes, even with the restrictions on how many people get into the store at once, have you seen how busy it gets in a Wal-Mart? I feel like a trip to Wal-Mart is running the COVID gauntlet. How is that safer than letting three or four people into a mom-and-pop shop?

The struggles of many industries are well-documented. Restaurants, breweries and bars are among them. For weeks, you’ve been able to dine out, so long as it’s al fresco and you wear a mask when you’re not eating or drinking. But you couldn’t go to a brewery, bar or winery, unless it was also a restaurant.

I get it. They wanted to avoid having large crowds gather with lowered inhibitions.

Now, at least, you can go to a winery or brewery in L.A. County, so long as they serve food, which can include partnering with a food truck. But the requirements are much more restrictive than restaurants. 

Want to grab a burger and a beer at a restaurant? Walk on up, ask if they have a table available, and if they do, you’re in.

Want to grab chicken wings and a beer at a brewery?

Not so fast, Bubb.

To go to that brewery, you have to jump through some more hoops than you do for a restaurant. First, you need to make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance.

Then, when you arrive, you must order your beer and meal at the same time, on the same ticket. And those chicken wings may not qualify, because the county’s rules say you must order “a bona fide meal,” and those hot wings apparently don’t count.

From the L.A. County health officer order: “‘Bona fide meals’ are defined as a usual assortment of foods commonly ordered at various hours of the day that would be considered a legitimate meal; the service of prepackaged food like sandwiches or salads, or simply heating frozen or prepared meals, or serving only appetizers and snacks, shall not be deemed compliant with the bona fide meal requirement.”

Whatever they’re smoking at the county Department of Public Health, I want some.

What in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks difference does it make if you sit outdoors at a restaurant and order a burger and a beer vs. sitting outdoors at a brewery and order wings and a beer?

Does the coronavirus lurk around saying to itself, “Let’s check out this restaurant. Oh, that guy’s got a beer, a steak, a baked potato and a salad. Not gonna infect him. Let me hop on over to the brew pub. Hey, that guy’s got a beer and NACHOS! Boom! Target acquired!”

I’m not saying we should be reckless. Stay outdoors. Keep the tables at least 6 feet apart. Mask up. Bathe in hand sanitizer every time you touch something. This virus is serious business and we should all be really, really careful to avoid spreading it, and even then, we could still catch it through no fault of our own.

But really? Why does one kind of food-serving business get to accept customers on a walk-up basis while another has to take reservations at least a day ahead? They’re both serving food and drink. And why does it matter if you’re ordering a full-course meal versus a plate of chicken strips with a side of ranch?

It makes. No. Sense.

I guess I’ll hop on the phone today and make a reservation for Sunday. Hopefully they’ve got a food truck at the brewery so we can get a “bona fide meal” — and catch up with bartender Sara.

It’s been a long while.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.

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