As expected, the fight over outdoor dining in Southern California is heating up. Fresh off a tentative win in Los Angeles County Superior Court, attorney and restaurant owner Mark Geragos is now taking his fight directly to the federal court system, filing a new lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom that would overturn the current outdoor dining ban. And this time, he’s got help.
Per the LA Times and others, Geragos (a lawyer who also owns Downtown LA restaurant Engine Co. No. 28) is joined in his new lawsuit by Angela Marsden, the owner of Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill in Sherman Oaks. In a viral video from a couple weeks back, Marsden broke down in tears when showing an outdoor dining setup for a film crew that was erected in front of her restaurant, which had been mandated to close its own outdoor dining area.
Geragos’s previous lawsuit in LA County ended in a (sort of) victory, with Judge James Chalfant saying that officials at the LA County Department of Public Health and the LA County Board of Supervisors “acted arbitrarily” in closing outdoor dining at restaurants, chiding public health officials for a perceived “lack of data” to show that restaurants were directly causing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Chalfant’s injunction meant that, barring further evidence, county officials would have been forced to reopen on-site outdoor dining on December 16 — though the county’s own reopening timeline had already been superseded by the state-level regional stay-at-home order from Newsom’s office, which is slated to either go away or be extended on December 28. LA County officials have appealed Chalfant’s injunction.
In the new suit, a copy of which was provided to Eater, Geragos alleges that Newsom and state officials “have seized the coronavirus pandemic to expand their authority by unprecedented lengths, depriving plaintiff and all other similarly situated small business owners in CA of fundamental rights,” calling it a “gross abuse of their power.” If the lawsuit moves ahead, a judge could rule that outdoor dining must be allowed to resume, though for now that possibility remains far off. As legal experts have noted, government officials are given wide berth during emergencies to act in the interest of public health and safety, with or without firm, immediate data to guide any decisions.
Down in San Diego County, a judge briefly ruled that on-site dining would be allowed to return as well, though that was quickly squashed by an appeals court on December 18. Newsom, meanwhile, has begun hinting at an extension of the regional stay-at-home orders that have pushed restaurants back into takeout and delivery only across Southern California, meaning LA and surrounding counties could well be under the latest mid-November lockdowns well beyond the current December 28 expiration date. Any modification to the public health order would come in the next several days, as intensive-care unit bed capacity across Southern California stands at zero percent, and hospitals begin discussions about rationing care because of a shortage of staff members, devices, and facility space.
Los Angeles and the Inland Empire are currently one of the worst COVID-19 zones in the entire United States, a country that has soared past 300,000 pandemic deaths while pushing millions of people to the brink of homelessness and countless small businesses to the edge of bankruptcy. Over the weekend, Congress passed a $900 billion stimulus bill to help, but more federal financial assistance is needed; whether or not it ever comes is a different question altogether.