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Why LA County Decided to Shut Down Outdoor Dining

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Health director Barbara Ferrer says it’s because rates are increasing higher than ever in LA County

A server wearing a mask and face shield takes orders from customers at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, November 23, 2020.
A server wearing a mask and face shield takes orders from customers at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, November 23, 2020
Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images
Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

On November 22, LA County’s Department of Health announced it would suspend outdoor, on-premise dining in Los Angeles beginning November 25 at 10 p.m. in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. In the past few weeks, coronavirus cases have increased 108 percent from the beginning of November. Restaurants across the city are disheartened at the loss of outdoor dining, which provided much-needed income and jobs to operators and workers alike.

However, health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer gave some illuminating rationales for why the county decided to put a three-week cessation on outdoor dining. Ferrer said in a call with media today that the most prominent one they know is dining on-premises puts people of different households within the same place without wearing face coverings. And because COVID-19 rates are higher than ever right now, hitting just over 6,000 cases today, she’s concerned that allowing this kind of maskless interaction will only serve to increase the rate of transmission. (Ferrer did say that daily case number was likely higher due to a delay in test reporting.)

Ultimately, Ferrer is basing the decision to close on-premise dining because it naturally reduces the number of interactions people of different households will have in person without masks. “I think one of the sad realities is that we’ve never seen a rate of increase as high as we’ve just seen. We know places where people are eating are places where transmission is easiest, and most likely,” she said.

Given last week’s figures showing that only 81 percent of 726 inspected restaurants complied with physical-distancing guidelines, Ferrer expressed concern that the lack of compliance could result in greater exposures to diners in outdoor dining rooms. She explained how a low rate of compliance could result in dramatic levels of exposure for diners across the county: “Almost 20 percent of restaurants were not in compliance with social distancing mandates. In LA County, that’s more than 6,000 sites, which could easily translate to more than 300,000 people at increased risk of exposure if each of those sites had 50 people in them.”

Last month, the health department said somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of COVID-19 cases originated from restaurant experiences, but today Ferrer shared that that information was based on a small sample size of interviews conducted among 280,000 positive cases in LA County. Ferrer said, “most people we interviewed had no idea where they were exposed. We asked about activities from the last two weeks.” Indeed, because of COVID-19’s 14-day incubation period and the number of activities each person who was positive engaged in over that period, even the county’s data of 10 to 15 percent of cases originating from restaurants may not be fully accurate.

Seven day average of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County from April to November 2020.
Seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County from April to November 2020
LA County Health Department

Restaurant operators cried foul when the county announced the forthcoming outdoor dining shutdown, stating that the health department failed to justify the decision based on a relatively low rate of transmission in restaurant premises. Earlier today, the Independent Hospitality Coalition, made up of independent restaurant operators around LA, claimed the transmission rate had not increased since outdoor dining was permitted in late May, and decreased in the past five months, arguing instead that events such as Halloween and private gatherings are the primary drivers of the surge. In fact, even LA County supervisor Kathryn Barger came to the support of the restaurant industry, openly opposing the health department’s decision and saying she would advocate on behalf of the tens of thousands of jobs that would be affected by the minimum three-week closure.

When asked why the health department couldn’t enact other policies, such as enforcing a countywide mask mandate or boosting contact tracing, Ferrer deferred to the Board of Supervisors’ scheduled meeting tomorrow. Due to the five-day average of over 4,500 cases in Los Angeles County, the board could decide to put Los Angeles into a “targeted” safer-at-home mandate. Ferrer didn’t provide further details except that the restrictions would not mirror the one from spring. One thing is certain: It looks like the prohibition of outdoor dining will continue until at least December 16, and potentially longer.