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As Kern heads toward purple tier, businesses move to adapt ... again

Many around Kern County will take advantage this weekend of one last chance to eat a meal with friends at their favorite restaurant in anticipation the county will revert to the purple tier of the state's reopening system next week.

If that happens — and increasing COVID-19 numbers have made it all but inevitable at this point — restaurants can only seat patrons outside starting Friday. Churches, gyms, movie theaters and museums, which were also able to operate indoors on a limited basis, will also be restricted to outdoor activity again. With temperatures dipping locally, once again business owners are trying to figure out how to adapt.

Instead of fans, misters and portable coolers that restaurants invested in over the summer, this time around restaurateurs are scrambling to find tents, patio heaters and propane to keep diners comfortable in chilly temperatures.

Stephanie Duhart, manager of popular Basque restaurant Benji's on Rosedale Highway, was searching high and low for patio heaters this week. Lowe's and Home Depot were out and renting is expensive, she said. She finally found some at Costco. Then she learned that propane is in short supply locally.

"Propane is now like toilet paper," she said.

Indeed, a woman who answered the phone at Home Depot on Mount Vernon Avenue said the store was out of propane and other locations in town were running low. Lowe's website showed the same. 

And that was just one of a number of problems Duhart was dealing with. She was thinking about her 25 employees, and whether they would be impacted by a move back to the purple tier. Business at Benji's, started by her uncle Benji Arduain in 1986, had picked up once the dining room reopened, she said. But how many people will want to eat under a tent outside when it's cold and dark? Will she have to lay off some of her staff?

"You've got 25 families relying on you to stay open," she said. "They've got families and have to pay rent and want to be able to have a decent Christmas. It's not an easy thing to deal with."

There's also the fact that takeout isn't a great alternative for a restaurant like Benji's. The traditional meal revolves around the setup, a steady stream of dishes being brought to the table. 

A plate of steaming french fries taste wonderful after a bowl of soup and salad, but they're not the same when they come stuffed in a to-go container, she said. 

While the situation feels all too familiar for some — this is the third time restaurants have had to scale back under COVID-19 restrictions since March — Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard noted that the dynamic this time around is a bit different.  

For one thing, schools have started to reopen, Maggard said. That will help to alleviate some of the strain for parents. And salons, barbershops and other personal care services have been exempted from the reopening plan and will be allowed to stay open. 

With the election of Joe Biden as president there is also the possibility of another COVID-19 relief plan on the horizon, Maggard said.

"It's a whole new paradigm in which we're working," he said.

Maggard, who worked closely with businesses in his previous line of work as an accountant, suggested now is a good time for businesses to strategize about their operations and have a heart-to-heart with their advisers. 

"It won't go back to the way it was, at least for a while," he said. Maybe it's safer and less costlier for a restaurant to stick to takeout and outdoor seating even if indoor seating is allowed again, he said. 

As COVID-19 cases have increased again throughout the state and nation, 11 counties were moved to more restrictive tiers on Tuesday. They were Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Modoc, Placer, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Stanislaus and Trinity counties. Of those, Sacramento, San Diego and Stanislaus were moved to the most restrictive purple tier.

David Goh, senior pastor at The Garden, a church in downtown Bakersfield, said Friday his staff will discuss what to do when the county is officially moved into the more restrictive tier next week. His church had reopened using a reservation system for families to ensure capacity wasn't exceeded and guidelines were followed. 

A spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno said Mass would likely have to go back to being celebrated outdoors if one of the eight counties the diocese covers moves back into the purple tier. 

The city of Bakersfield had offered free permits for gyms, churches and youth sports to operate in its parks. So far permits have been granted to one church, one gym and three youth sports group. A second permit for a gym is pending approval.

Ralph Fruguglietti, owner of Frugatti's, an Italian restaurant on Coffee Road, said the constant change in how restaurants operate is frustrating but has prompted innovation that he thinks will help the restaurant in the long run.

"We're always looking to see what can we do better. If you're not going forwards, you're going backwards," he said.

To that end, the restaurant created a patio around the fountain in front of its entrance, covered with umbrellas for dining in the summer. People loved it, Fruguglietti said.

He now plans to put up a tent and add patio heaters to the area in anticipation of indoor dining shutting down next week.

He still gets annoyed. When dining indoors was allowed again, the restaurant began to book up its special event wine cave space next door for holiday events. All but a few days were booked till the end of the year, he said. Those will likely all be canceled or turned into catering orders, he said.

But because of the pandemic, the restaurant has put more emphasis on improving its takeout service, including expanding family meal options, advertising specials on Facebook and converting iPads no longer used for reservations into an option for customers to place takeout orders. 

When Frugatti's opened 30 years ago, it was meant to be "a loud, Southern Italian, plates clanging" kind of place, he said. 

"We were good at takeout but we weren't great. It's turned us into a good takeout business," he said. 

"I think we've become a better operation because of it," Fruguglietti said of the pandemic and the shifts and changes it has prompted in his business. "If you can take something positive away from it, it's not as bad it seems."