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With COVID-19 Cases Falling Fast, When Will LA Begin to More Fully Reopen?

When is full-capacity outdoor dining coming? What about indoor dining? Or the return of my favorite dive bar?

Santa Monica Exteriors And Landmarks - 2021
Sunset at the Santa Monica Pier
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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.

Coronavirus cases have been rapidly falling across the state of California in recent weeks, giving public health officials and area hospitals a chance to battle back from a brutal winter surge that saw as many one person every eight minutes dying from COVID-19 in LA County alone. Increased vaccination efforts have helped to stem the recent tide of coronavirus infections, but much of the falling case rate success is owed to the most recent round of severe lockdowns that closed outdoor dining and restricted travel starting late last fall. Add in antibodies from a large portion of recovered former coronavirus carriers, and it’s understandable why — in just one month — the state’s virus positivity rate has fallen from 11.3 percent to 3.3 percent.

The recent news has given healthcare workers, hospitality workers, and just about everyone else at least a bit of newfound hope for the future. And now that, as of late January, limited-capacity outdoor-only onsite dining is back at restaurants across Southern California, some are asking aloud about the next logical step: When will LA County and others be able to move into an even less restrictive color-coded reopening tier, meaning more capacity at restaurants and (eventually) the resumption of indoor dining, once deemed safe enough? And when will bars and nightlife venues be able to open again?

The supremely short answer is: Not for a little while, at least.

While Los Angeles County’s coronavirus metrics have been steadily dropping, including daily case numbers well below the previous 4,000 cases per day mark that saw on-site dining shut down back in November, the amount and rate of infection is still a good deal higher than it was last summer — and well out of range for moving down a tier. Currently Los Angeles and all surrounding counties are in the purple/widespread tier, the top and most dangerous level; in order for that to drop to the red/substantial tier, each county would need to wiggle below a rolling weekly average of seven or less new daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, with a positivity rate that is at or below eight percent.

While LA’s intensive care unit bed capacity has jumped from essentially zero percent to over 17 percent, and the county’s positivity rate is under seven percent, there are still far too many positive cases per 100,000 residents to fall into a lower tier. Other counties like Riverside, Orange, and Ventura — while also improving — have similarly high numbers that will likely prevent any move to a lower tier in the next few weeks.

However, it could be possible (as has already been rumored around the city) that limited-capacity indoor dining could return to Los Angeles by April, if the necessary metrics continue to fall. Any county hoping to move into a new, lower tier, must continue to meet the necessary thresholds for at least two weeks, which already basically leaves out all of March for any reopening possibilities.

And what exactly comes with a move to the tiers below? Here’s what the state says:

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)

It’s worth noting that local jurisdictions can add their own more restrictive (but not less) public health orders on top of the above, meaning LA County could continue to only seat diners outdoors even if the numbers allowed a move into the red tier, and thus some limited indoor dining. Currently, LA County is only seating diners at 50 percent outdoor capacity, a return to its previous public health order just before broader lockdowns last fall.

As for bars and other establishments (like music venues and nightlife spots) that serve alcohol but no food, it remains to be seen how county officials will deal with their reopening. Right now, breweries, distilleries, and wineries fall under much the same guidance for reopening as restaurants, provided they partner with a licensed food facility to serve a meal along with the alcohol. Yet LA County stands alone at the state level in its tighter restriction of bars specifically, meaning operations without their own kitchen to serve food cannot partner with a vendor to supply drinks along with outside meals. The enduring decision to keep bars closed has come at great cost to many small businesses, including longtime LGBTQIA+ spots that have been closing at an alarming rate around the region.

For now, with coronavirus metrics continuing to fall, some workers and operators have been targeting spring for a broader reopening, buoyed by more vaccinations and word that much of the American public could be vaccinated against COVID-19 by sometime this summer. As with nearly every other aspect of this ongoing pandemic, much remains uncertain, but — at least for the moment — there is some hope.