SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Confusion over state and local health guidelines have left some Santa Barbara bar owners rattled, as they attempt to modify operations in order to stay open.
Following a modified health order this week, bars may reopen in Santa Barbara County provided that seating is outdoors and a full meal is included with every transaction involving alcohol.
The new order comes after confusion and frustration heading into Fourth of July weekend.
Last Thursday, following guidance from the state and amid rising coronavirus numbers locally, Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg ordered all bars, breweries, pubs and brewpubs to close. Outdoor tasting rooms were allowed to stay open.
Santa Barbara County Public Health says it then got clarification from the state Health Department just before the holiday weekend that bars could stay open with the new food requirements.
Bar owners say the message changed multiple times, and that by the time the message became clear on Friday--or for some, on Saturday--it was too late to pivot and introduce food options in order to stay open for Fourth of July weekend.
Bars owners were not happy to miss out on holiday weekend customers, and County Public Health acknowledges the timing made it a tough situation for the entire industry.
The bar owners who spoke to NewsChannel 3 do not have any hard feelings for County Public Health, acknowledging that the Department has a difficult job and must deal with constantly changing information.
"It's just a rotten situation for all of us," said Jason Jones, who owns The Red Piano in Santa Barbara with Colin Campbell.
The bar recently introduced an outdoor patio and Duo Catering & Events began operating an outdoor kitchen Thursday, offering meals like fried chicken sandwiches, oysters and mac n' cheese. The partnership also helps Duo, as catering companies continue to struggle amid mass event cancellations.
County Public Health's Environmental Health Services (EHS) is offering emergency food permits for any bars that need them.
But even with an avenue for bars to operate, the challenges to do so continue.
An email from Alcohol Beverage Control obtained by NewsChannel 3 explains the "meal" requirement bars must now follow. It lists items not considered to be a "meal," such as pre-packaged sandwiches and salads, snacks such as pretzels or chips, as well as other items often considered to be typical 'bar food' like chicken wings, fried calamari, french fries or small salads.
The need for more substantial food has become a massive expense for many bars. Brandon Ristaino and his wife Misty are co-managing partners for three cocktail bars in Santa Barbara. He says the new requirement compounds their losses "exponentially."
EHS says the food requirement is meant to make bars operate more like restaurants, where groups remain at their own table and don't walk around or walk to the bar to order anything, in order to prevent unnecessary interaction and possible spread of the virus.
Ristaino argues his bars were already following that model without food.
“Bars like ours, our cocktail bars, you have to be seated at all times,” he said. “You can’t just wander around… I think that the experience in a restaurant is very similar to what I proposed, what we were doing three weeks ago… I think we are as safe as [restaurants] are, and I think the absence or presence of food doesn’t dictate that level of safety.”
Ristaino says he and his wife and their staff members are resolute that they can get through the tough times, but that the changing guidelines have also weighed on their mental health.
"We're incredibly shaken," he said.
Multiple bar owners have pointed out that the new requirement seems inconsistent. For example, tasting rooms and wineries can operate outdoors without any food options, but bars and brewpubs must serve food.
Some bars have decided to remain closed for now.
Bob Stout, owner of the Wildcat Lounge and Bobcat Room, says his businesses are taking the new guidelines "week-by-week." He says he was planning on reopening them this week with food service, but he is now re-assessing that plan given the uncertainty of another potential order to close in the future, with coronavirus cases currently spiking.
Stout says he wants to take the time to reopen "right" and "be responsible."