Much of California (including Los Angeles and all of Southern California) remains in the throes of a second stay-at-home order, which began on December 6 and will last at least through December 28. The increased measures are meant to help combat the spread of coronavirus, but have come at a significant cost, particularly for restaurants told to cease on-site outdoor dining immediately. In LA County, restaurants had already been told to stop outdoor dining for at least three weeks, starting on November 25 — creating an overlapping set of muddled directives made even murkier by ongoing legal challenges.
So, in light of the current surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, a push from government officials to reopen, and differing timelines in different areas, when exactly will Southern California be able to return to outdoor dining?
The current status of restaurants in Southern California
Restaurant owners who managed to stay afloat are still kicking even after laying off staff, shifting concepts, spending money to expand outdoors, while getting little relief from landlords. In recent weeks, California’s state, city, and county officials have closed those outdoor expansions so as not to allow people to congregate outside their homes, leaving only a haunting daily reminder of the rollercoaster ride that is restaurant ownership in 2020.
So is everyone just going back to takeout and delivery? Not really. Restaurants like Fingers Crossed, Dan Sung Sa, and the incredibly busy Rose Cafe in Venice have closed temporarily, and say they won’t reopen until it is deemed safe (and financially viable) to do so. Highland Park’s Hinterhof has similarly minimized its hours, as has Eagle Rock’s Found Coffee.
Some independent cities and lots of area restaurants are pushing back, keeping patios open in defiance of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new public health order. Nearly a dozen state senators have called for restaurants to be deemed essential, and allowed to remain open. Each week, LA County shatters previous infection records while ICU capacity shrinks to levels never seen before. Of those infected with coronavirus, 21 percent are in intensive care.
A look back at California’s first shutdown in March
On March 17, Newsom shut down dining rooms statewide without offering a reopening timetable, leaving restaurants to offer takeout and delivery only. On May 12, LA County Department of Public Health officials declared the stay-at-home order would be extended until August, though two weeks later LA County public health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer gave the green light for restaurants to reopen on-site dining (indoor and outdoor) under new guidelines, including face masks and limited capacity. Mayor Garcetti’s Al Fresco program followed.
Reopening lasted just over a month, with Newsom again ordering the immediate closure of LA dining rooms on July 1, before closing them statewide July 13. Mayor Garcetti claimed the reopening of indoor dining “happened too quickly;” outdoor dining was deemed safe enough to continue. That lasted until November 25, when a contentious vote from the LA County Board of Supervisors approved the closure of outdoor dining for at least the following three weeks. Pasadena, which has its own department of public health, continued on-site dining for several more days, until the state closure notice came down. The LA County DPH’s order is set to expire on December 16, but the state’s superseding directive remains.
The factors behind reopening
Basically, it all comes down to data on COVID-19 spread and hospital capacities. Previously, counties have been grouped into colored risk tiers by the California Department of Public Health, using data like case rates to make determinations. Under the more recent system, counties are lumped into regional groups (LA is in Southern California), and if any region falls below 15 percent intensive care unit bed capacity overall, the stay at home order is enacted, restricting travel and closing on-site dining for at least three weeks. Southern California passed that threshold and went into the stay at home order on December 6.
Southern California’s ICU bed capacity is currently below three percent, with several counties like Riverside out of beds entirely. The Los Angeles Times reports that LA County has less than 100 ICU beds available. In order to reopen for on-site dining, state officials either need to change the rules to allow restaurants to return, or area restaurants will need to wait until total ICU bed capacity reaches above 15 percent again.
Is there hope?
Sort of. Several vaccines are being lined up for wide use across the state, starting with healthcare workers and high-risk groups. The Los Angeles Times reports there are approximately 2.4 million healthcare workers throughout the state to be vaccinated first, and Pfizer’s first vaccine shipment contains about 327,000 doses. California’s population is 39.51 million people, so a safe “return to normal” is still months off.
California has previously succeeded at curtailing cases, but not at this magnitude. Dr. Ferrer calls the current surge the Thanksgiving “bump,” pointing to fall family gatherings and Dodgers and Lakers victory celebrations as spreader events. And with more holiday travel and gathering (despite restrictions) likely, LA remains in a critical place.
What can restaurants do now?
Now that December is here, with no financial relief in sight for restaurants and surging COVID-19 cases, the struggle will likely worsen. Restaurant workers, without their own social safety nets, continue to show up to make a living, and contraction among staff is still very much an issue. Some people are calling for a rent strike, others are defying state orders altogether. And even if an LA judge says the the county’s dining ban isn’t legal, state officials still make the ultimate call.
Until then, many restaurants will continue to close. Others, if they’re able, will do so temporarily, but that still means laying off staff. Everyone is asking, rightfully, for government officials to step in with a bailout. So far, it hasn’t come.