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LA and Orange Counties Approved For Bigger Restaurant and Bar Reopening as Soon as Tomorrow

With an expected move into the orange tier tomorrow, both regions can reopen dining rooms at 50% capacity, and bars without food can return to life

Diners at Grand Central Market in Downtown LA on March 15, 2021
Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/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.

Los Angeles and Orange County have both been cleared by the state public health apparatus to move into the less restrictive orange tier as soon as tomorrow, reports the LA Times, meaning a jump in indoor dining capacity for restaurants and the long-awaited return of bars that don’t serve food (albeit in an outdoor capacity). This is the first time since the inception of the state’s color-coded, multi-tiered reopening system (dubbed the Blueprint for a Safer Economy) that either county has progressed to the less-severe orange tier.

Both counties are currently in the state’s red tier, meaning limited-capacity indoor dining at 25 percent, plus outdoor dining with the usual coronavirus modifications in place like eight feet of distance between tables and mandatory personal protective equipment for staff members. Here’s what’s possible in the orange tier:

  • Restaurants can increase indoor dining capacity to 50 percent, or 200 total diners, whichever is fewer. Numbers must factor in continued table distancing and other coronavirus protocols like mask-wearing whenever possible.
  • Outdoor dining at current occupancy levels (50 percent) remains in place.
  • Breweries, distilleries, and wineries that serve food can increase indoor dining capacity to 50 percent, or 200 total diners, whichever is fewer.
  • Breweries, distilleries, and wineries that do not serve food can offer indoor drinking at 25 percent capacity, and can continue to offer drinks (by reservation, and with time caps) outdoors.
  • Bars that do not serve food and have not partnered with a licensed food vendor can open for outdoor drinking only.

The move to a less restrictive tier comes as the region’s COVID-19 cases continue to either fall or hold steady. The state uses several benchmarks for determining tier status, like test positivity rate, adjusted case rate totals per 100,000 residents, and more. The state has also adjusted those data thresholds over time as it continues to push for greater vaccination numbers in some of the California’s hardest-hit communities.

The expected move to the orange tier this week is not only great news for restaurants with limited outdoor dining capacity and businesses like card rooms (reopening at 25 percent indoor capacity), theme parks, and sports arenas — it’s a massive lifeline for the struggling bar and nightlife industry. Local watering holes and beloved dive bars without kitchens have been largely closed for the past year-plus, unable to even offer takeout drink service like at restaurants, breweries, wineries, and distilleries. In the orange tier, those bars will be able to offer outdoor drinking starting this week, with no food required.

There is some cause for concern with this wider reopening, planned for this week. Public health officials nationally have continued to warn citizens that a fourth surge could be coming if coronavirus protocols like mask-wearing is not kept up — particularly as new variants continue to show higher rates of transmission among groups of all ages. Los Angeles, the most populous county in the country, was hard-hit by the winter surge but has emerged with strikingly low transmission rates this month, leading some experts to say that a mix of herd immunity and increasing vaccinations would make a new local surge unlikely.

As always, Los Angeles County public officials can (as they have in the past) enact stricter rules around reopening than the state guidelines currently call for, such as leaving some sectors of business closed for now, but there’s little indication that officials will do so this time around. A public press conference with LA County Department of Public Health director Dr. Ferrer is planned for today at 3 p.m., so expect more specific localized guidance at that time.