We sympathize with dozens of local business owners (and the thousands of people who depend on them for a livelihood) who are caught in the cruel coronavirus carousel. Business owners like Sylvain Montassier and Helen Nasser-Elddin of Pacifica Brewery have done everything that has been asked of them — closing, reopening, shifting outdoors, changing to a takeout model. Around and around they go.

You didn’t have to attend last week’s protest to know the heartache caused by a deadly virus that has not only infected 2,280,000 Californians but also disrupted the countless businesses that provide our jobs, food and comfort in more normal times.

The protest, which included a very visible and orderly midday march down Highway 1, was organized by the brewery owners. They argue convincingly that their business is able to operate safely even in the midst of a surging COVID-19 crisis. They normally run a lively outdoor area and have invested tens of thousands of dollars in things like heat lamps so that their customers could be as comfortable as possible in a very uncomfortable time.

They and many other small-business owners are barely staying afloat weeks into this shelter-in-place order and after nearly 10 months of restrictions that have squeezed revenues to a mere trickle.

It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. It’s terrible in every way.

That does not mean, however, that state and regional authorities should simply open all the bars as some would like. For one thing, each is different. Some have adequate outdoor space. Some have taken proper precautions. Some establishment owners can be trusted to enforce masking and social distancing rules. Some, though, can’t make those claims. Bars and restaurants (and hair salons and yoga studios and so on) are not “essential” businesses in the way grocery stores are. When assessing risk, health officials face a daunting matrix. They must measure what is necessary or even acceptable risk against the potential for dead people. It is easy to see how, faced with such a calculation, one might err on the side of safety.

Perhaps protesters missed the larger issue. Given the tools accessible to the general public at the moment, distance is our most effective defense and the best chance of stalling coronavirus spread. If we would all simply stay home for a while, we would be able to come out sooner. Opening restaurants and other much-beloved businesses might encourage bad behavior — large gatherings, riding together in cars, raucous conversation — even if business owners themselves took every precaution.

In a more perfect world, regulators would consider each business on its own merits. We can imagine an outdoor restaurant environment that is “safe,” just as we can imagine one that is a super-spreader waiting to happen. The reality is we lack the mechanism to tell one from another, moment to moment.

What can we do then? We can all act responsibly and collectively, putting life above livelihood, thereby easing the spread of this deadly virus so that we might all emerge sooner. We can demand an efficient rollout of the vaccines that will eventually end this crisis. We can help local businesses by buying local, ordering takeout, contributing to efforts to support out-of-work employees.

We can do this. Together.

— Clay Lambert

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