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Here’s What California’s New Color-Coded Reopening Plan Means for Restaurants

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Indoor dining is now possible again across the state, but it’s going to be a while for LA County

Natalia Pereira among cooking utensils and equipment in a kitchen wearing a blue cloth mask.
Cooking at Wood Spoon in Downtown LA
Wonho Frank Lee
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

A new color-coded reopening framework for California has big implications for the state’s restaurant scene, which has been crushed by the ongoing pandemic and its related economic volatility. The plan, announced on Friday by Governor Gavin Newsom, creates a four-tier system that runs county-by-county across the state, allowing for those areas with reduced COVID-19 cases and positivity rates to reopen ahead of more heavily impacted neighboring counties.

Meeting the needed criteria at the county level means that restaurants within those certain counties (Napa and El Dorado, for example) can begin to reopen for limited indoor dining service today. Newsom previously closed indoor dining statewide on July 13.

The so-called Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which does away with the highly criticized local approach that Newsom first introduced when reopening sectors of the economy earlier this year, permits the entire state to “progress in phases based on risk levels with appropriate time between each phase in each county.” In short, counties will be graded by the state using four different color shades, each of which represent important data thresholds: a reduction in the seven-day average of the number of new daily cases per 100,000 residents, and a reduction in the seven-day average of positive tests by percentage, as shown in the chart below.

A graphic showing different color codes for statewide California reopenings based on coronavirus data.

Right now, the vast majority of the state’s counties (including all in Southern California except for San Diego County) remain in the purple/widespread tier. For any county to move into a different, lower-risk tier (and thus be allowed to phase in some reopening features like limited dine-in restaurant service), that county would need to meet the above data thresholds and remain at that level or below for at least three weeks. Once each county has moved into a new color-coded tier, the clock resets. Meet the new data threshold, stay there for three weeks, move into a newer reopening tier; rinse, repeat.

So what do those tiers actually mean for restaurants? Let’s take a look:

  • Tier 1/purple/widespread means outdoor dining only
  • Tier 2/red/substantial means limited indoor dining at 25 percent of capacity (based on certificate of occupancy) or 100 diners, whichever is fewer
  • Tier 3/orange/moderate means limited indoor dining at 50 percent of capacity (based on certificate of occupancy) or 200 diners, whichever is fewer
  • Tier 4/yellow/minimal means limited indoor dining at 50 percent of capacity (based on certificate of occupancy)

Restaurants at each tier will have to continue with the litany of state/county coronavirus protocols as well, meaning masks and face shields for servers, keeping distance between tables, and more.

A graphic showing color codes attached to reopening guidelines, with purple being the most serious.
Counties by color code

Things are slightly different for bars, breweries, and distilleries. Those that don’t serve food in addition to alcohol are to remain closed through the purple and red tiers, but can reopen for outdoor drinking in the orange tier, and can reopen indoors at 50 percent capacity in the yellow tier. Wineries are treated as an independent category, and must remain closed through the purple and red tiers, but can reopen indoors at 25 percent capacity (or 100 patrons, whichever is fewer) in the orange tier. In the yellow tier, wineries can jump to 50 percent capacity or 200 patrons, whichever is fewer.

There is still some room for local variance within the state’s new system. For example, San Francisco (which is both a county and a city) is in the red tier, meaning restaurants there have been cleared to reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity (or 100 diners, whichever is fewer) as of August 31. However, officials there are holding back on reopening, noting that “in any instance where there are differences between state and county requirements, the stricter requirement is the one that must be followed.” In Los Angeles County, breweries and wineries have been told recently (and confusingly) that, despite state-level clearance, they cannot reopen for takeout, delivery, or outdoor service even if they serve food alongside their alcohol offerings. As a result, they must wait until the orange tier to reopen.

Currently, there is no green tier for reopening, which would indicate some broader allowances like fully reopened indoor dining, the return of large in-person gatherings like sporting events and concerts, and so on. “We don’t believe that there is a green light,” Newsom said on Friday, “which says go back to the way things were or back to the pre-pandemic mindset.” It’s likely that, barring a vaccine, those allowances won’t come until 2021, at least.

Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous with some 10 million inhabitants, currently has a weekly average of over 13,000 new cases (or 13 per 100,000 residents), and a positivity rate of 5.5 percent. Back in July, Los Angeles city mayor Eric Garcetti acknowledged that the first round of late spring/early summer reopenings “happened too quickly,” so there’s hope now that this statewide, moderated, and slower reopening could successfully stick around into the fall and beyond.