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Here’s What California’s Color-Coded Reopening Tiers Actually Mean For Restaurants

What counties are currently open? What do the color tiers mean for dining capacity? What about bars and event venues?

Tenraku’s outdoor dining setup
Outdoor dining at Tenraku
Matthew Kang

Now that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has canceled the ongoing statewide stay-at-home orders, which clustered counties together by large regions (Los Angeles County was in the Southern California region, along with 10 others), public health officials once again return to the multi-tiered, color-coded system first implemented back in August 2020.

So what the heck do those tiers mean again, and how does each tier affect restaurants? Let’s dive in.

Last summer’s unveiling of the color-coded tier system, called the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, was meant as a way to attach county-by-county empirical public health data to any reopenings or closures. Each tier, as shown below, was tied to two primary metrics: test positivity rate, and a seven-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 residents. Counties in different tiers had different capabilities, including increased or reduced capacity at retail sites, personal care facilities, and at restaurants. Any county seeking to move into a less restrictive tier would need to meet the data threshold of the lower tier, and remain at that level for at least three consecutive weeks before being allowed to move down.

Here’s the color-coded chart showing the thresholds for each tier.

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

And here’s what those tiers mean for restaurant capacity:

  • 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)

Within each tier, all of the usual coronavirus protocols remain in place, from social distancing and six feet of space between tables to mandatory mask and face shields for staff that interacts with customers.

Bars, breweries, and distilleries are held to higher standards than restaurants, and thus treated differently within the tiered system. Bars that serve food as well as alcohol are treated as restaurants, but those that don’t must remain closed entirely in both the red and purple tiers. Bars, breweries, and distilleries can reopen for outdoor drinking in the orange tier, and at 50 percent indoor capacity in the yellow tier.

Wineries have slightly different numbers, though they must similarly remain closed in the purple and red tiers. At the orange tier level, they can reopen for indoor service at 25 percent capacity (or 100 patrons, whichever is fewer), and in the yellow tier they can remain open at 50 percent capacity (or 200 patrons, whichever is fewer). There is no green tier for broad, unrestricted reopening and large-scale in-person events, though the ongoing vaccine rollout does offer some hope for a return to ‘normal’ before the end of 2021.

Currently, every county in Southern California is in the purple, or “widespread” tier.

So, starting today, those counties in the purple tier can return to outdoor on-site dining only, without capacity restrictions and with the usual COVID-19 protocols in place. The case is slightly different for Los Angeles County, which has been mired in a political and legal battle over outdoor dining for months. It’s possible that LA County continues to keep outdoor dining closed for the foreseeable future, because the state allows individual public health departments to carry more restrictive (but not less) orders than the state requires. If the LA County Department of Public Health and the County Board of Supervisors did keep outdoor dining closed (while the rest of the state opened up), it would likely trigger a wave of restaurants ignoring the order and follow the state guidelines instead, as some have already been doing.

Long Beach and Pasadena each have their own public health departments, and thus don’t need to follow the guidance of the LA DPH either way. Already this morning restaurants in Long Beach have begun to open up their patios for service. As for LA County proper, expect further guidance from public officials in a press conference slated for 2 p.m. today.

When can area counties expect to move into a less restrictive tier? Not for a while, it seems. Case rates are still well above their summertime numbers, when the tier system was first put into place, and many times above the necessary thresholds to move into a less restrictive tier. As LA Times health reporter Soumya Karlamangla notes, Los Angeles County was never able to move out of the purple tier last summer/fall because it could not get below the seven new daily cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents average. Currently, LA’s daily case average per 100,000 is a staggering 150. Ventura County is at 153, San Bernardino County is at 155, and so on.

Meanwhile, coronavirus (including the possibility of several new, more contagious strains) continues to blast through LA County’s population, causing thousands of deaths and affecting Black and Latino populations at dramatically higher rates than white residents. Some restaurants, including the historic Pink’s Hot Dogs, have even closed temporarily with cases so high, in an attempt to keep employees and customers safe.

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