Despite fierce opposition from business leaders, chambers of commerce, and restaurant industry associations, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today cemented plans to close outdoor dining at restaurants beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, November 25, at 10 p.m. Dozens of workers, diners, and business owners called in to the hours-long board meeting to voice their opposition, but ultimately the request to change the modified health order from the LA County Department of Public Health failed in a 2-3 vote.
County health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer and other staff members from the Department of Public Health were present at the meeting, including Christina Ghaly M.D. and Dr. Muntu Davis, and together they laid out their case for shutting down on-site dining at restaurants this week. In short, LA County’s coronavirus case numbers have skyrocketed in recent weeks to heights not before seen during the pandemic, and there is a “very real possibility,” said Dr. Ferrer, that the local healthcare system could soon become overwhelmed as a result.
Furthermore, Dr. Muntu Davis cited a Center for Disease Control study that targeted 11 different outpatient healthcare facilities in 10 states, and found that those patients with COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined out at a restaurant. Dr. Davis added that restaurants are one of the few businesses where customers are allowed to spend time without masks on, which is a major contributing factor to the spread of coronavirus overall. And, in response to a question from supervisor Janice Hahn, Dr. Davis noted that while restaurant-specific contact tracing data around the coronavirus was scarce, that “as a public health department, we have to look at the highest risks, and where we can reduce those risks.” Restaurants fit that high risk category, Dr. Davis said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger disagreed, noting that without firm data showing restaurants specifically as a leading cause of the spike in current cases, she “cannot in good conscience” support the modified public health order, which forces restaurants to stop outdoor on-site dining tomorrow. “I feel that what is happening today is truly going to devastate not only the workers but their families,” Barger added, saying that she felt the closures were “arbitrary and punitive.”
Supervisor Hahn asked the most questions of the Department of Public Health, peppering them on data collection and enforcement. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to target restaurants not following the rules,” asked Hahn, “and shut those down, as opposed to prohibiting all outdoor dining?”
Dr. Ferrer responded that she wanted to be “realistic” about enforcement. “There are 31,000 restaurants in LA County,” Dr. Ferrer said, “and our team, as hard as they’re working, they get to about 300 a week... There may be many other places that are not in compliance.” She added that social media has shown many examples of restaurants that are not following social distancing guidelines, and that roughly 19 percent of restaurants her office has investigated have been found to not be in total compliance with COVID-19 related guidelines. Dr. Ferrer also added that there is “inherent risk” at restaurants because customers are not always wearing masks, and are often gathering with members of other households over a meal, though she is “well aware” of the frustrations felt by workers, business owners, and diners regarding the impending closure of outdoor dining.
Supervisor Hahn again noted the need for federal financial intervention, saying:
It’s killing me to think that at this point, a few weeks before the holidays, we are considering an order to force restaurants to maybe shut down permanently. We know they will lay off employees if they are restricted to takeout and curbside only. I really don’t think that’s something I want to do... We are careening down another economically tragic road.
Ultimately the decision to keep tomorrow’s outdoor dining closure stood, with supervisor Hilda Solis saying that she “agrees with what our healthcare officers are saying to us,” though she is “not indifferent” to the economic issues for restaurants. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl agreed, adding that she had heard from workers’ rights groups who were pleased about the decision to shut down in-person dining. Though those groups were “worried about revenue” for workers, “they would be more protected. They’ve been worried about things like approaching tables without masks on.”
In the end, the decision was made to keep Wednesday’s closure of all outdoor dining in place, though it’s worth noting that the city of Pasadena (which has its own public health department) has said that it would not follow suit, instead monitoring cases daily while keeping outdoor dining. The City of Long Beach is stepping in line with the county, and will close all on-site dining tomorrow as well. The motion to approve a broader stay-at-home order is still to be discussed.