A palpable sense of relief has descended upon northern California wine country. On Wednesday 7 April the counties of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino all moved out of the ‘Red: substantial risk’ tier and into the ‘Orange: moderate risk’ tier after their daily rates of reported new COVID-19 infections fell below six per every 100,000 people, and their rates of positive test cases fell below 5%.
Practically speaking, this means that winery tasting rooms and wine country restaurants can reopen, allowing customers inside at a limited capacity, and that wine tasting can now legally resume without an accompanying meal (a requirement that was among the stranger impositions of California’s COVID-19 protocols). Wineries can now operate normally at 25% of their standard capacity up to a maximum of 100 guests, while restaurants can operate at 50% capacity for indoor dining.
Many factors have contributed to the reduction in virus transmission in these counties, but among them one must certainly count the concerted efforts that the wine industry itself has made to have a large portion of its workers vaccinated.
These efforts were aided, early on, by California’s decision to classify wineries and other agricultural enterprises as essential businesses. This meant that employees working in the cellar and the vineyards were classified as essential workers alongside healthcare, grocery store, transportation, first responders, and several other occupations. By virtue of this designation, all winery employees were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it became available.
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As Wine Country re-opens throughout California and visitors return to tasting rooms once again, beyond mask-wearing employees and lots of hand sanitizer, they may encounter something unusual before sipping and spitting: legal waivers to sign.
This, dear friends in the wine industry, is the opposite of hospitality, and a surpremely bad idea that should be halted immediately.
Because forcing customers to sign away their legal rights and make attestations as to their health before entering your facility and tasting your wine is not about keeping them safe, it’s about keeping YOU safe. And when you are in the hospitality business, and you find yourself forcing your customers to do something uncomfortable that is entirely for your benefit, you’re doing it wrong.
Just ask any of the restaurants who are opening up in your county. The idea of forcing someone to sign a legal document before sitting down to have a meal is patently absurd. I haven’t been out and about much since things started reopening, but when I recently sat down in a restaurant for the first time since the shelter-in-place began, I certainly wasn’t asked to legally attest to the fact that I had no symptoms of COVID-19 and agree that I wouldn’t sue the restaurant if I later became sick.
You want to take my temperature as I come in the door? Fine. You want to ask me to sanitize my hands? Great. Insist I wear a mask except when I’m eating and drinking? Great idea.
But don’t get the lawyers involved.
Here’s the way I see it: either you are comfortable enough with your ability to keep your customers safe and the risk of frivolous lawsuits (which by the way, could have happened before COVID-19, too) or you’re not.
If you’re not — if you’re truly frightened to death that there’s a significant likelihood that someone might catch the virus through no fault of yours and choose to sue you — then you should seriously consider whether you should be opening back up right now.
I say this with the deepest compassion and empathy for business owners and their employees who are truly suffering right now. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the government shut down your business and force you to furlough or terminate employees who, in this industry, probably feel like family. It’s heartbreaking, and I join many of my industry colleagues in demanding that the government take care of the hospitality business in the same way it has been taking care of the airlines and the banks and the country’s wealthiest corporations.
If you feel like you need some level of protection, work with your insurance companies and lawyers to find a way to do so in a way that does not impact the guest experience. For instance, here’s what I was greeted with when I pulled into Peju Province Winery’s parking lot last Wednesday:
Now I’m not a lawyer, and I assume this probably isn’t anywhere near as protective as a signed legal contract, but from a customer experience perspective, it’s miles better. Such signs have long been posted in wineries thanks to Proposition 65. There’s got to be an equivalent approach for COVID.
So I implore my industry colleagues in these trying times: don’t forget the principles of hospitality as you struggle to regain your footing. By all means, do what you need to to do keep everyone physically safe and healthy. That’s an important part of taking care of the guest. Forcing them to cover your ass legally most certainly is not.
No one knows for certain when Wine Country will open back up in California. As wine tourism represents more than $7 billion of the California economy and employs more than 375,000 people, it’s clearly high on the list of things to get re-started once the government has decided to loosen the current shelter-in place restrictions. California governor Gavin Newsom has indicated that the re-opening of businesses will move in phases, but the details of those phases are not concrete beyond the suggestion that Phase One will include reopening of some retail businesses that can offer takeout and/or curbside delivery.
Counties around the state are doubtless hard at work developing their own plans for the eventual easing of restrictions, and so eventually, we will be able to leave our homes and head to Wine Country for a flavorful respite.
The (Immediate) Future of Tasting Rooms
When it finally happens, visiting a tasting room in wine country will look a lot different than it does today, at least as far as some guidelines published recently by the Wine Institute of California are concerned. These guidelines paint a picture of a very different type of experience than we might be used to having, though one that still promises to offer the kind of enjoyment people seek in their visits to wine country.
The only way to visit a tasting room in California will likely be by appointment. Many tasting rooms in Napa were already by-appointment-only, by virtue of specific licensing requirements, but in many of those cases, someone dropping in could often easily secure such an “appointment” just-in-time. Such flexibility won’t go over well in our new normal. If you show up without an appointment in California, you’ll likely be turned away. In Oregon, people will be allowed to drop in without an appointment.
2. Small Groups Only
You’ll be able to bring a few friends, but not more. Party sizes will likely be restricted to six or fewer individuals in California, ten or fewer in Oregon. For now, Wine Country will see a continued reprieve from the dreaded-but-lucrative tourist buses.
3. Masks reQUIRED, Except When Sipping
Masks will be required in California, though only “recommended” in Oregon. While you will be able to remove your mask once you’re seated to drink some wine or eat, masks will be expected when you enter a winery tasting room and while doing things like walking around the grounds, or getting up from your table to go to the restroom. Winery staff will be required to wear masks as well as gloves.
4. Outdoor or Physically-Distanced Seating
No more bellying up to the tasting bar in your favorite little tasting room. Groups will be required to occupy their own individual table, and that table will need to be placed in such a way that keeps the group at least six feet from any other group visiting the same facility. Individuals within the same group will not need to maintain physical distance, but the winery will be required to arrange their seating so that groups can maintain proper distancing.
Those wineries in California that can provide outdoor seating that meet these requirements will likely be able to open sooner than those who cannot.
5. Wrap it Up Early (In CALIFORNIA)
In California, wineries will be required to stop serving alcohol and food by 5 PM. Oregon will be more lenient and allow service until 10 PM.
6. You Sneeze, You Cough, No Service
While no clear and definitive criteria have been offered, nor any specific guidance on how to monitor such things, wineries will be required to deny service to “customers displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19.” You can expect to see signage to this effect at wineries.
7. Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs
Speaking of signage. As we’ve now come to expect everywhere we go outside of our homes now, wineries will be covered in signs indicating proper physical distances, requirements or recommendations for masks, things you can touch and things you can’t and more. Hopefully they won’t have to block the view of the vineyards while we sit and sip.
Despite all those changes and inherent restrictions, I suspect that Wine Country will find itself quite busy as it opens up even as shelter-in-place guidelines are still operating. Who wouldn’t want to get the hell out of their house and go taste some wine someplace pretty if they were able to do so right now?
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