February 21, 2024

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You can’t do to-go business if no one comes. For Delta’s day-trip towns, pandemic takes toll

To-go orders won’t cut it for many businesses along the Delta.

For the tourist communities of Isleton, Walnut Grove and Locke, business has whimpered since the first set of COVID-19 “stay-at-home” orders and restrictions in March. In the small communities nestled alongside the bends of the Sacramento River, local residents don’t spend enough to keep business afloat.

They need visitors. They need people to come, stay, dine and enjoy their towns. And the coronavirus has cut them off.

“The traffic comes and goes, and no one stops,” said Banna Phat, owner of Alma’s River Cafe in Walnut Grove.

These town need the tourist trade that kicks up in late spring and early summer, seasons that previously rekindled the chatter of day-trippers and the sound of passing cars on their main streets 30 to 40 miles from Sacramento. Now a bleak silence hangs over them.

The pandemic has taken its toll: A festival canceled. New businesses delayed. New approaches considered.

For the communities along Highway 160 – the wandering road along the Sacramento River – theirs remains an economy built on those travelers. Now, a new wave of restrictions has interrupted their season and many business owners worry just how long they will be able to hold on.

On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced renewed restrictions to indoor dining services in Sacramento County, ending Phat’s ability to return to his drop-in business. The order came as part of new state restrictions for the 19 counties on the state’s coronavirus “watch list.” For three weeks venues such as bars, indoor wineries, movie theaters, bowling alleys and arcades are restricted again.

Sacramento County issued a complying order Thursday.

The order allows outside dining to continue. That doesn’t mean much for Phat.

He said he has space for one table outside his restaurant. He will rely almost solely on to-go orders, which, he said, will take away more than two-thirds of his business.

Alma’s specialty is breakfast food. Customers don’t like to order take-out breakfast food, Phat said. If they can’t dine-in, many would rather make it at home.

Phat took over the restaurant at the end of summer last year after moving from San Leandro. He believed business on the Delta would be more relaxing than in the Bay. Summer receipts, he said, were supposed to double winter ones.

“We hadn’t fully recovered yet,” Phat said. “Now we’re falling back into the hole again.”

The tiny Delta city of Isleton, shown in a drone image from Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
The tiny Delta city of Isleton, shown in a drone image from Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Businesses adjust to swings

Owners throughout the Delta have had to decide whether to close temporarily or drastically slice hours. Many have thinned operations to the bones, trimming menus to most popular items, reducing employees to the bare minimum, and reserving hours of operations to Friday and weekend evenings.

Iva Walton’s Mah Wei Beerhouse in Isleton, a taphouse, transitioned into a beer-grocery store, selling beer to go.

“I’m operating about one-third capacity, a third the hours, a third the staff, a third the profit,” Iva Walton, said before Wednesday’s new restrictions.

“My numbers are lower than in the dead of winter when it’s raining all day,” Walton said.

Tourists compose about half of Walton’s business. As tourists numbers slow, said Walton, locals, the other half of her business, had helped. But the new restrictions will force them out.

“A big part of it is the social aspect,” Walton said. “People that enjoy the social aspect aren’t interested in the to-go aspect.”

Dr. Peter Beilenson, Sacramento County Director of Health Services, said that as of now, “very few” of the coronavirus cases in the county have spread through restaurants.

Restaurants, he said, run a lower risk in spreading the virus due to a restaurant’s ability to distance customers at the recommended 6 feet and because customers tend not to interact with other customers. Until now, he said, tracking suggests that “low-circulation” bars and family gatherings have spread a significant amount of county cases.

Does a urban-rural divide exist?

Still, with a spike in COVID-19 rates that has pushed California’s hospitalization and ICU totals to all-time highs, closing restaurants is necessary to ensure social distancing, Beilenson said.

“The number of cases is so large that it is prudent to go back and restrict incidents of indoor dining again,” he said.

The restrictions trouble some Delta business owners, who wish the state considered different implementation.

Small communities such as Isleton, Walton said, shouldn’t be restricted by to the same extent as larger cities like Sacramento because the little towns are more conducive to social distancing, even though they are in the same county.

Instead, decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, said Walton. Her taproom, she said, differs from the crowded conditions of bars. Mei Wah, said Walton, has good circulation, windows and its clientele adheres to social distancing.

But Beilenson warned against separating between rural and urban areas in social distancing restrictions. In Sacramento County, the rural-suburban community of Galt has become one of the county’s most recent hot-spots, he said, negating the idea that the virus spreads more in urban than rural areas

“The addition of one or two cases in a restaurant,” he said, “can lead to dozens of cases very quickly.”

Virginia Coyle, left, and her sister Elizabeth Ung peer through the windows of Main street on Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Locke, Calif. Locke, the last remaining rural Chinese town in the United States, lies along the Sacramento River Delta.
Virginia Coyle, left, and her sister Elizabeth Ung peer through the windows of Main street on Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Locke, Calif. Locke, the last remaining rural Chinese town in the United States, lies along the Sacramento River Delta.

The next plans

The new restrictions have forced businesses to brainstorm.

Locke is a historic community of slanted wooden buildings and shady verandas. It claims the title of nation’s oldest standing rural Chinatown.

Martha Esch, proprietor of Locke Grille & Fountain, has limited her menu to ice cream and some “ready-to-warm” sandwiches she has sold from a table at her entryway, hoping to catch the eye of passing cars.

Local business from the Delta, she admitted, usually accounts for less than a quarter of her receipts. But Esch has made plans to advertise for outdoor, socially-distanced, ice cream birthday parties on Delta community pages on Facebook to make up for the drop in tourism.

Health officials have warned that family gatherings have also been at the root of the current spike. Still, those gatherings occur.

“I’m sure that people are still having birthdays,” she said. “People would still like to celebrate with their friends.”

Yet she worries that the numbers won’t pick up soon enough.

“People are getting used to not doing anything anymore and not going anywhere,” Esch said. “You hardly see anybody (here) during the daytime.”

A sign welcomes visitors to Isleton on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015.
A sign welcomes visitors to Isleton on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015.

In Isleton, the usual plans to rekindle the city’s rebirth have faded.

To open up the summer tourism season, a collection of local business owners planned the second annual SummerFest, the newest iteration of a Father’s Day weekend festival.

In the past, Isleton relied on festivals to renew tourist interest throughout the year. Festivals made Isleton a destination for thousands as opposed to a stop along the way to somewhere else. To open up the summer tourism season, the city once held the Crawdad (and later Cajun & Blues) Festivals on Father’s Day weekend for decades.

Organizers had to cancel this year’s SummerFest months before. Instead, this year that weekend welcomed “average” traffic, according to Jean Yokotobi, former President of the Isleton Chamber of Commerce.

Peter Low, of Peter’s Steakhouse and Pineapple Restaurant in Isleton, said festivals continue to represent both strong profits and the town’s best opportunity to build a brand.

“It’s not to get rich in one day,” Low said. “(It’s) to let people know we are here.”

Low has held off from reopening his two businesses in response to the lack of tourism and the risk of coronavirus exposure. Low estimated that 70 percent of his restaurants’ revenue comes from tourists from the Bay Area, Stockton, or Sacramento

The pandemic also delayed many of Isleton’s newest plans for the Main Street.

Until the most recent economic downturn, the city planned to welcome three new businesses this summer.

The second-floor entrance to the Bing Kong Tong building in Isleton sits in disrepair in this 2002 photo. The Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society raised funds to restore the building, which once was a Chinese language school and cultural center where weddings and funerals took place.
The second-floor entrance to the Bing Kong Tong building in Isleton sits in disrepair in this 2002 photo. The Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society raised funds to restore the building, which once was a Chinese language school and cultural center where weddings and funerals took place.

It also expected the summer reopening of the historic Bing Kong Tong Building, a historic Chinese-American meeting hall built in 1926, after extensive renovation funded with grants from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment and HUD. The building will serve as the new home to the Isleton Museum, housing a collection of artifacts like furniture and pictures which date back to the city’s founding.

The Tong building opening has also been postponed, Yokotbi said.

Instead, only one new business, a tattoo parlor, has opened on Main Street.

Despite the uncertainty, Walton said she expects a resilient response from Isleton’s business community to the grim economic outlook.

“(Isleton) is already a really small town,” she said. “You already have to be really smart about how you make a business. But, it’s a very hard time for human beings right now.”