Spirits are heating up as Southern California restaurants push back outdoor dining ban


The last al fresco dining hurray in Pasadena came on a Friday night.

On December 4, diners looking for what would likely be their last on-site meal in 2020 filled restaurant and bar patios along Colorado Boulevard, with queues outside many businesses. Some, like the modern French bistro Perle, got so busy that staff members started asking customers to forgo their tables after 90 minutes so they could sit waiting guests.

Two days later, however, those crowds were mostly gone.

Although this was the last remaining obstacle to alfresco dining in LA County, Pasadena had ultimately implemented an on-site eating ban in accordance with a broad regional health order from Governor Gavin Newsom which came into effect. effective Sunday, December 6.

“You plan one thing, then something else happens. I would like them to give us more time. I think that’s where all restaurateurs are: give us more time to prepare ”, Armando Ramirez, co-owner of El Portal, told the Pasadena Star-News.

The new regulations ended a tumultuous few days for restaurateurs and government officials as tensions escalated over the rollout of a sweeping outdoor dining ban that aimed to curb a record spate of new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations in the region. But as what started as an LA County health ordinance two weeks ago was bolstered by a tougher state ordinance on Sunday, defiant restaurateurs found themselves with a tough choice: shut down alfresco dining or risk being shut down by health department authorities.

Eat at Joe’s, a popular Redondo Beach restaurant that recently attracted attention for a banner mocking Governor Gavin Newsom’s visit to the French laundry, was closed by the LA County Public Health Department on December 4 . Owner Alex Jordan had defied county orders. published earlier in the week by continuing to offer the service on the outdoor terrace of his restaurant.

After a warning from health officials that the restaurant would be temporarily closed, Jordan switched to takeout only on Friday and posted a “outdoor dining is closed” sign, though patrons can still sit and sit down. Eat at tables under a large outdoor tent in Eat at Joe’s parking lot.

Still, the changes were not enough to gain approval from county inspectors. Jordan was forced to close his restaurant for at least 10 days pending an appeal and was fined $ 500.

“They came with the intention of shutting me down”, he told the Daily Breeze. “They wanted to shut me down. “

Another controversy went viral on social media the same weekend after Angela Marsden, owner of Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill in Sherman Oaks, posted a video showing a closed outdoor food court at her restaurant next door to a collection of tents and tables used as a catering station for a film crew.

“Tell me it’s dangerous, but right next to me – like a slap in the face – is it safe?” Marsden said in the video, expressing outrage at the county’s decision to ban outdoor dining but allow film production to continue.

Although county health department officials released a statement noting that film crews are regularly tested for the virus and do not mix for long periods without masks, the backlash from the video led to a protest in Saturday afternoon, December 5 in front of the Santa Monica home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

A few dozen protesters, including Marsden and several Sherman Oaks restaurant owners, chanted “Reopen! Reopen! ”And held signs with messages urging government officials to reopen alfresco dining.

The previous week, a crowd of a few hundred had gathered for a similar protest march in Long Beach led by local business owners Ryan Choura and Trent Bryson and supported by the Long Beach Restaurant Assn. The group, which included many local restaurant workers, urged Long Beach officials to reconsider their decision to follow the advice of the LA County Health Department by shutting down in-person meals.

It wasn’t just restaurant owners and protesters pushing back against LA County’s ban on alfresco dining. Cities such as Beverly Hills, La Verne, San Dimas, Claremont, Whittier, West Covina, Hawaiian Gardens and Lancaster have approved motions expressing their disagreement with the LA County decision or raised the possibility of creating independent health services. of county jurisdiction.

“Cities can only establish their own health services with state approval and a demonstrated ability to perform essential public health functions,” LA County Public Health Department officials said in a statement. The stay-at-home order issued by Newsom over the weekend makes the subject largely irrelevant for the time being, as state health orders replace those issued by cities or counties.

However, not all municipal governments have been deterred. December 3, the city of Manhattan Beach announced a new policy intended to help restaurants keep outdoor dining areas intact, allowing patrons to use them as public seating areas. Under the city’s new rules, diners can pick up their take-out food and eat at restaurant-owned tables, as long as diners sanitize their tables after each use.

“Our business community is struggling to survive the latest county restrictions and the city has a win-win solution to help while protecting public health,” Manhattan Beach Mayor Suzanne Hadley said in a statement. .

But LA County officials responded with a statement that quickly threw water on the city’s proposed workaround. “Outdoor dining of any kind,” the statement read, “is prohibited in Los Angeles County under the current health worker order.”

Hadley said she was confident the new outdoor rest areas, which technically owned by the city, would comply with all health guidelines and that city officials would continue to assess the situation.

A handful of LA restaurants have sought to continue offering outdoor seating through similar loopholes; Swork, a cafe in Eagle Rock, opened its tables to patrons engaged in a “peaceful protest,” while Heroic Italian, a Santa Monica delicatessen, promoted a “public picnic park” on Instagram.

Other Southern California Restaurants declared on social networks that they planned to defy the state’s ban on outdoor eating, including Blackbird Tavern in Temecula and Basilico’s Pasta e Vino in Huntington Beach.

Some restaurateurs, like Jordan of Eat at Joe’s, have placed their hopes in a recent lawsuit filed by the California Restaurant Assn. in which LA County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled that LA County must provide evidence to support the implementation of the outdoor dining ban.

On Tuesday, Chalfant issued a preliminary ruling that LA County acted “arbitrarily” in restricting outdoor dining, but noted that due to the state’s regional stay-at-home order, the The ban would remain in place for now, leaving business owners with few legal resources as COVD-19 cases continue to grow at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, a recent LA County restaurant relief effort has been hampered by deployment issues. A website for the Keep the LA County Dining Room The program, which offers grants of $ 30,000 to qualifying businesses struggling during the pandemic, crashed Thursday due to overwhelming demand.

A new application for the program was released by county officials on Monday, December 7, meaning restaurants had to rush to reapply in order to be one of the first 2,500 approved applications to be eligible to claim. to the grant.

The city of Los Angeles has also announced a program called Secure emergency relief for vulnerable employees, which will pay a one-time allowance of $ 800 to 4,000 unemployed or underemployed restaurant workers.

If there are too many applicants, officials said, eligible workers will be selected at random.

For some restaurants, such as the longtime Nick’s diner in Chinatown, al fresco dining ban relief was unlikely to come soon enough.

“The city has closed us [for outdoor dining]. So we lie about this grant. Does the city realize the lives that are destroyed by their actions? I doubt we’ll ever reopen, ”owner Rod Davis wrote in a series of Facebook posts announcing the closure of the restaurant.

“We had a good deal. We had employees who worked with us for years. Now we are all broken.

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