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Fatigue and Resistance Set in as California Restaurants Lock Down, Again

This time it’s not so simple, as angry restaurant owners, diners, and even government agencies push back on the latest slate of regional stay-at-home orders

An empty restaurant interior
Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

As the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported multi-fold increases in new coronavirus cases last week, the region’s ICU bed capacity plummeted to well below the state threshold of 15 percent. The alarming news triggered an immediate lockdown for 11 Southern California counties, beginning at midnight on Sunday. The new restrictions eliminate any sit-down dining for the second time this year until at least December 28, as restaurants continue to struggle during this unprecedented public health crisis.

But this time, there’s a lot more resistance.

Call it lockdown fatigue or lack of faith in government, the overall sentiment throughout the region is one of desperation. Restaurant owners are at a tipping point with the restrictions, especially now that they’ve pivoted their operations multiple times between takeout, delivery, indoor dining, outdoor dining, almost always with limited capacities each time. Those maneuvers often mean spending thousands on mandated personal protective gear and amped-up outdoor dining areas, only to then be told to close — without being helped much financially, if at all.

The current wave of discontent continues to make itself known in the form of protest. On Saturday, restaurant and bar owners and regular diners showed up at LA County supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s Santa Monica home to protest the closure of outdoor dining across the county. Their presence was also in response to Kuehl’s perceived double-standard, when she was seen dining at Santa Monica’s Il Forno only hours after casting a vote to eliminate outdoor dining throughout the county.

Independent SoCal cities have also grown frustrated with the LA County Department of Public Health, which guides lockdown decisions everywhere except for in Long Beach and Pasadena for the county of 10 million. Beverly Hills, Whittier, and Lancaster have all considered breaking away from the DPH’s jurisdiction, either by ignoring orders regionally or forming their own separate public health departments.

Diners wait for food at Eat at Joe’s
Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Down in Manhattan Beach, officials for the standalone city have designated all outdoor dining areas as “public seating,” marking them as available for takeaway diners looking to sit down to eat, which is meant to help restaurants skirt the ongoing on-site dining ban. While slightly north, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties hope to break from the regional stay-at-home order and request the state consider them a separate region if the ICU capacity exceeds 15 percent over the next three weeks.

Some restaurants are defying the rules altogether. Redondo Beach’s Eat At Joe’s was shut down by the health department on Friday, as owner Alex Jordan pushed back against orders to close in-house dining. He was fined $500, while Cronie’s Sports Grill in Agoura Hills was fined $1,500 for a similar refusal. Cronie’s owner Dave Foldes has said that his restaurant cannot survive without outdoor seating, and that he does not want to lay off staff before Christmas. His permits have since been revoked by the health department.

Throughout Orange County, restaurants have begrudgingly closed their outdoor dining areas today. Dana Point’s Harbor Grill has complied, though owner Keegan Hicks believes that restaurants applying safety measures to outdoor dining do not spread coronavirus. Others, meanwhile, are not going lightly. The Daily Breeze reports the Silver Dollar Pancake House in Corona has refused to limit in-door dining. In Temecula, Blackbird Tavern says it will remain open for in-house dining during the holiday season.

And then there are the legal challenges. Last week, L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant requested that public health officials provide data to justify why restaurants should remain closed for on-site dining. Chalfant made the request on December 3, with a hearing scheduled for this afternoon. In late October, a group of California restaurants filed claims against state and county agencies to reclaim millions in liquor, health, and tourism fees. The class action suit alleges government entities continued to charge operating fees while restaurants were forced to close or limit their operations due to coronavirus.

So far, law enforcement has been mixed on whether or not officers will be used to follow through on social distancing/mask-wearing mandates. The Los Angeles Times reports that Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco openly criticized California Gov. Gavin Newsom for threatening to cut funding to counties that didn’t comply with the state’s reopening guidelines. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said that his deputies will not enforce the regional stay-at-home order, as did LA County sheriff Alex Villanueva.

It’s a bleak picture all around for restaurants. Health experts continue to sound the alarm about the staggering number of new COVID-19 cases throughout the region, adding that not all restaurants are following proper protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19. The percentage of available hospital beds keeps shrinking by the day, and there’s little hope soon that Los Angeles or surrounding counties will be able to formally reopen for on-site dining any time during the current holiday season. Meanwhile, last week’s bipartisan Senate stimulus proposal, a meager attempt at industry financial assistance, remains stuck in political purgatory.