Tightening of Covid restrictions may delay return to classroom for 6th through 12th graders; restaurants react to dining room closures

Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto’s sixth- through 12th-grade students may have to postpone their return to in-class instruction because of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order Monday returning Santa Clara and other counties to the state’s most restrictive Covid restrictions.

Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s public health officer, said the governor sent the county back to the purple tier of Covid restrictions, the strictest of the state’s four tiers. Indoor restaurant dining is prohibited, churches can only meet outdoors and schools have to stick with online instruction if they haven’t already returned students to actual classrooms.

“We’re adding some additional restrictions because of our concern about the rapid and steep rise in case counts in our county,” Cody said Monday. “The state put this emergency brake on because our county, like many counties, is seeing a significant and rapid uptick in cases. So it’s not just the number of cases, it’s about how fast this happened.”

Palo Alto school superintendent Don Austin told the Post that the governor’s new order could prohibit the district from returning its middle and high school students back to physical classrooms, and that all sports, band and similar extracurricular programs are in jeopardy.

“It’s not looking positive at this point in time based on the information we have,” Austin said. “But the rules change daily, so we’ll wait and see what the future brings.”

He said the district received no warning the county would be returning to the purple tier.

The district’s plan was to allow families the choice to keep their children in online classes or go to a combination of online and in-person instruction, called the hybrid option.

While more than 2,100 elementary students have been back in their physical classrooms for over a month now, secondary school students may not get the choice to return anymore.

“That decision may have just been taken from them by a decision from outside of our school district,” Austin said. “Watch the news for the next few days. I would be surprised if this is a stand alone announcement from the governor today (Monday.)”

He also said elementary students will stay in class as they have been because “we’ve already shown that that can work,” but many other details about the rest of the school year remain uncertain.

School board member Melissa Baten Caswell said on Monday she was unsure what the new order meant for students now and that the news came as a surprise.

“We just have to make sure that every decision we make is safe and well thought through,” Baten Caswell said. “We have spent a long time thinking through safety. I can’t tell you what this means for secondary (grades 6-12). That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Under the new health order, schools that have not yet returned to school have to wait until after the county has been out of the purple tier for at least two weeks, according to County Counsel James Williams.

Also, indoor dining is again banned, gyms are limited to 10% capacity, though gyms’ indoor swimming pools, hot tubs and saunas must stay closed. And outdoor gatherings cannot exceed 200 people, with limited outdoor capacity to maintain a six-foot physical distance between people at all times.

Stores, shopping centers and supermarkets must maintain a maximum 50% capacity. Malls must close food courts. Nail salons and barber shops will continue to operate at a limited capacity. Masks and face coverings are still mandatory in public, too.

The county previously allowed indoor dining at restaurants to resume but at reduced capacity last month.

Mike Garcia, owner of The Wine Room Palo Alto at 520 Ramona St., said street closures have helped some businesses regain some lost revenue recently. But his wine bar is situated right where the closure ends, leaving the parking spaces in front of his shop open for cars instead of seated customers.

“It’s just kind of difficult to know what the hell is going on,” Garcia said.

He seats about three tables in front of his bar for about one to four people each, but if it’s raining, then he closes shop for the day because nobody sits outside. And after being back open with limited capacity for a little over a month now he’ll have to close his indoor area again. He said if restrictions on his restaurant don’t lighten up and customers don’t return, he may have to close his doors and his employees will be out of work again.

“Everybody’s in a different situation. Some people don’t have any sidewalk or parking lots or anything,” Garcia said. “We’re making it happen. We’re doing better than I thought we would be doing, but there’s good days and bad days just like anything else.”

County Supervisor Joe Simitian acknowledged businesses are having problems right now but said the state took the reins on moving the county back into the purple tier. He said the state’s new order is going to be “a shock to the system for a lot of folks.”

“It’s a hardship, there’s no question about it, not just for the business owners but for their employees. And that being said, the public health officers have made a good case that indoor dining really is problematic in terms of the virus,” Simitian said. “I think this is yet another one of the challenges with a statewide order, or even a county order, which some folks will be better situated to adapt to than others.”

And he said while news of a vaccine has been going around, he is still unsure what the delivery of it to citizens locally will look like.

“I think there is some good reason to be optimistic, but I really do think the logistics for a state of 40 million people are going to be quite challenging,” Simitian said. “I am quite cautious in my expectations of the delivery of the vaccine and the timeline for that delivery.”

Thom Abellana, a kitchen worker at Ramen Nagi at 541 Bryant St. in Palo Alto, said by Monday he’d seen his share of good and bad days of the pandemic as well.

“I’ve got to pay my bills,” Abellana said. He has to take many precautions at work, including temperature checks at the door and getting tested often. “I would prefer if we stayed closed down and got money from the government for a bit.”

He survived getting furloughed by taking unemployment and he got a $1,200 federal stimulus check.

“I just hope it’s over soon,” he said.