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LA County May Keep Outdoor Dining Closed, Despite Today’s State Order

Several hurdles exist before most LA County restaurants can once again start seating diners outside. So what’s the plan?

Outdoor dining in Manhattan Beach
Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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.

Late last night, word began to leak out that California Gov. Gavin Newsom was planning today to cancel the state’s regional stay-at-home orders, meaning a return to the color-coded, multi-tiered, county-by-county lockdown orders seen throughout much of last summer and fall. The result of Newsom’s decision, which was formalized this morning, is that counties across the Southern California region are again defaulted to the “widespread,” or purple tier, the highest tier in the system, and can resume things like limited-capacity indoor services at hair salons, and outdoor restaurant dining. The modified public health order has taken immediate effect, so it may well be that outdoor breakfast is back at restaurants from Palm Springs to San Luis Obispo.

That is, unless county public health officials say otherwise. Throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles County officials (both the Department of Public Health and the County Board of Supervisors) have frequently acted to install more restrictive measures on its constituents and businesses that go above and beyond the state orders, including reducing restaurants to takeout and delivery only, weeks before Newsom demanded it.

So the question is: Will Los Angeles County immediately allow the return of on-site outdoor dining today? And can they, legally, given last year’s vote by County officials to stop on-site dining, and the ensuing lawsuit winding through the court system? So far, it doesn’t seem like anybody knows, though Eater has reached out the Board of Supervisors for clarification.

To backtrack: Since July 1, 2020, on-site dining at Los Angeles County restaurants has been confined to outdoor seating only, following a spike in COVID-19 cases at that time. In August, the state moved to the (just returned today) tiered system to determine reopenings for on-site dining. Details on those tier assignments and data metrics can be found here.

Various Southern California counties moved between the red and purple tiers for months, though LA County stayed in the purple tier the whole time — even moving to further reduce outdoor dining capacity to 50 percent in mid-November, before shutting it down entirely a week later. At that time, the Board of Supervisors and the Department of Public Health tied the closure of outdoor dining to rising daily case numbers, saying that if the average jumped to 4,000 cases per day or more, outdoor dining would go away entirely. It only took a week for that to happen, which triggered the immediate stoppage of outdoor dining while sparking massive blowback from diners, owners, and workers about the timing of it all.

Outdoor dining patio at Dama in Arts District, Los Angeles
Outdoor dining last year
Wonho Frank Lee

From there, the Board of Supervisors — which ultimately supersedes the Department of Public Health, and can decide (or not) to follow their guidelines — held a contentious vote to determine whether or or not to continue with the outdoor dining ban, voting 3-2 on November 24 to keep the ban in place. Days later a lawsuit by Mark Geragos, lawyer and Engine Co. No. 28 restaurant owner in Downtown LA, sought to overturn the ban on the grounds of a lack of direct causal data tying outdoor dining to rising COVID-19 cases, and a judge initially sided with Geragos, saying county officials “acted arbitrarily” in shutting down outdoor dining. That case was overturned on appeal, and is now pending another court date next month.

Since that vote on November 24, multiple restaurants and local municipalities under LA County DPH jurisdiction have openly flouted the on-site dining ban, either by turning outdoor tables into ‘parklets’ for sit-down dining, or by continuing to allow customers on patios despite racking up citations and criminal charges in the process. LA County cities Pasadena and Long Beach each have their own public health departments and thus do not need to follow LA County DPH guidance; Pasadena, as a result, continued for more than a week to allow on-site outdoor dining after the county Board of Supervisors closed it on November 24.

Which brings us to today’s reopening, as set forth by state officials. Because the state has always allowed that local jurisdictions (like the LA County DPH and Board of Supervisors) can take more stringent public health actions whenever they want, and because the County Board of Supervisors held a formal vote to uphold the outdoor dining ban until COVID-19 cases went back down (and they haven’t), and because a lawsuit against that vote is still held up in the court system, it is entirely unclear whether or not Los Angeles County restaurants (not in Pasadena or Long Beach) can reopen for outdoor dining today.

Reps for LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger sent out a public statement this morning saying that she “support(s) following the Governor’s recommended guidelines for Southern California, and reopening outdoor dining,” but have not commented on whether or not, legally, today’s reopening is even allowed yet. Barger was one of the two minority votes advocating to reopen outdoor dining on November 24. Mark Geragos, plaintiff in the county lawsuit that sought to overturn the outdoor dining ban late last year, said on Twitter this morning that “there is no prohibition against outdoor dining,” but that remains to be seen. Currently the language of the public health order, dated for November 25, keeps the closure mandate in effect “until further notice,” and it has not yet been modified with an end date.

Some, like LA Times health reporter Soumya Karlamangla, believe that Los Angeles County will continue its more restrictive lockdown efforts for the foreseeable future, including no on-site dining, given the staggering number of cases and daily deaths here. That would make LA County perhaps the only area in the state without outdoor dining, though ultimately other counties and cities could enact their own stringent public health orders as well. If LA County does continue to ban outdoor dining, expect a fresh (and vocal) wave of pushback from restaurant owners, including many who will likely decide to open up anyway.

Expect more clarity on the whole situation (hopefully) today at 2 p.m., when county officials will hold a public press conference.