Restaurants across Los Angeles are just beginning to grapple with the total prohibition of outdoor on-site dining, a major source of revenue for the past six months when indoor dining has been mostly unavailable (with the exception of a five-week period in mid-summer that quickly ended due to rising COVID-19 cases). But some restaurants are finding ways around the outdoor dining ban by either openly defying the county health order or setting up available seating on patios or adjacent areas without direct service to customers.
For these crafty restaurants, diners can then pick up food (which is still permitted) and sit on the premises without any further service from workers. It’s unclear whether this is actually permitted, but it hasn’t stopped eateries from trying to keep these spaces open in an attempt to maintain the level of business they had with outdoor dining.
LA restaurants were dealt blow-after-blow with the surprise reduction of outdoor dining to 50 percent capacity and 10 p.m. curfew on November 20. This compromised everything from food inventory to staffing for restaurant operators, leaving everyone confused as to actual capacity limits since most places were using whatever outdoor space they had available to them. Just a few days later, on November 25, all outdoor dining was ordered to close, which ended the discussion about capacity limits. Takeout and delivery operations were allowed to continue as a lifeline for restaurants.
Then, on November 30, a county issued a sweeping safer-at-home order that wasn’t as restrictive as the one from spring, but certainly a kneecap to restaurants who are already hovering over thin ice financially.
Some restaurants aren’t taking the orders without a fight though. Eat at Joe’s Diner, a casual all-day spot in Redondo Beach, has openly defied the outdoor dining shut down in an effort to keep its 11 employees on payroll. The move echoes Nomads Canteen, which directly defied Gov. Gavin Newsom’s safer-at-home order in early May and reopened for full capacity indoor and outdoor service. Joe’s owner Alex Jordan told CBS News that “cutting them [the employees] off four weeks before Christmas sat wrong with me.” Jordan also trolled Newsom with a temporary banner declaring his restaurant “the French Laundry patio dining,” a dig at the governor’s recent questionable decision to eat at the lauded Napa Valley restaurant in mid-November. Other restaurants around the county have been openly defying the rules, such as Koreatown’s Meat Love BBQ, which continued to serve diners on its tented outdoor dining area on Sunday evening.
Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Heroic Italian has converted its outdoor dining area into a “public parklet” offering seating and tables for anyone in the area, not just its customers. There isn’t any service from Heroic staff, though “park rangers” will sanitize the tables, maintain heaters, and offer bathroom access. The workaround is similar to one by Swork in Eagle Rock, which has billed its offered outdoor tables and chairs as a “peaceful protest,” a reference to the two exceptions in LA County for public gatherings, which currently allows gatherings for places of worship and protests.
It’s unclear how county officials will deal with either workarounds or open defiance of the shutdown of outdoor dining, though citations, fines, and other penalties could come to restaurant operators. Just today, the county announced it would provide $30K in financial relief to operators with a full brick-and-mortar location and kitchen, fewer than 25 employees, and a location not within the city of Los Angeles or Pasadena. Those restaurants looking for relief must also not be part of a corporate chain (and be part of a chainlet of fewer than five places), have more than “C” health rating, and have opened earlier than March 4.