There’s a new update out on the (yes, still ongoing) outdoor dining lawsuit in Los Angeles County, despite the fact that such dining is once again permitted as part of the state’s return to a tiered reopening plan. At issue now is not, specifically, if LA County restaurants should be allowed to reopen for outdoor dining (since they already are), but rather whether or not county public health officials must cite direct causal data that links outdoor dining with its decision to enact further lockdowns late last year.
First, some background. In November, the LA County Department of Public Health worked with the LA County Board of Supervisors (who can overrule the DPH, if they see fit) to determine a threshold of daily cases that, if met, would immediately trigger the closure of all on-site dining at restaurants within its jurisdiction across Los Angeles County. The only areas not under LA DPH’s ruling are Pasadena and Long Beach, since both have their own public health departments and thus make their own public health rules.
Within days, that threshold was met as the winter surge of COVID-19 cases began. Restaurant owners were furious at the speed and scope of the decision, with many loudly asking to “show us the data” that linked on-site outdoor dining with the rise in cases. A lawsuit, brought by lawyer and owner of restaurant Engine Co. No. 28 in Downtown Los Angeles, soon followed, seeking to force county public health officials to either pony up specific causal data linking outdoor dining to a rise in coronavirus cases, or to re-allow on-site outdoor dining. Superior Court judge James Chalfant initially agreed with Geragos about needing to show a data-linked reason for the shutdowns, calling the county’s decision “arbitrary” in a scathing ruling. That lawsuit was then pushed to February on appeal.
Now, per the LA Times, that three-judge appeals court panel has convened, and is leaning firmly on siding with the county against Geragos. So what does this mean for restaurants, directly? In one sense, not much, considering outdoor dining is once again back in LA County. But the panel’s statements this week do offer a large look into the machinations of government and public health during an ongoing crisis like the coronavirus pandemic — and what those officials are, and are not, allowed to do.
“Justice Brian Currey said he did not believe there is a statutory requirement that the county conduct an analysis to support its actions,” writes Times writer Lila Seidman, meaning that during an ongoing emergency (like the current public health crisis), officials do not need to provide the specifically-requested data enjoining a rise in COVID-19 cases with on-site outdoor dining. And as has been previously discussed, that’s not why public health officials and the Board of Supervisors shut down outdoor dining in the first place — they did it because they believed that closing on-site outdoor dining was in the best interest of the public health and safety during a crisis.
While the three-judge panel has not yet formally ruled (that could take a couple of months), this week’s public hearing is an overt testament to the power that government officials have long had during any public emergency. It’s the same reasoning behind statewide mask mandates during the pandemic; they’re not a law, because those are made by the legislative branch, but they are enforceable executive orders that can carry their own penalties and fines.
And as for the data that reopening lawsuits like Geragos’s have been asking for? It’s not likely to be available for years, if at all, given the lack of a truly robust contact tracing system countywide — though some health experts say the lockdowns likely did help LA County to eventually bend its spiking COVID-19 curve. Besides, as the County appeals court said this week, it was never about the data in the first place, it’s all about public officials acting swiftly in the name of what they perceive to be public safety during an emergency.