L.A. County Officials Mandate Restaurants Must Close Outdoor Dining, But Have No Local Data To Back Up Decision

Tom Tapp
·7 min read

On Tuesday, amid much contention, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors hotly debated a public health officer order that will close outdoor dining beginning Wednesday.

On Sunday, after the county’s five-day average went over 4,000 cases for the first time, county officials announced that restaurants, wineries and breweries would halt in-person dining (including outdoor seating) for at least three weeks. That’s starting at 10 p.m. tomorrow. While such public places may continue to operate for solely pick-up, drive-thru and/or delivery, L.A. County Public Heath director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said the county found multiple Los Angeles restaurants violating Covid-19 restrictions, mostly proper social distancing.

The county’s five-day average of cases stood at 4,266 on Tuesday.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors chair Kathryn Barger came out strongly against the restaurant closure at Tuesday’s meeting, calling one of many “increasingly and incredibly strict measures.”

“I feel that what is happening today is truly going to devastate our workers,” she continued, “and that it is not based on data.”

That last comment was a challenge to public health officials who, on questioning, could not provide county data that proved outdoor dining was spreading the virus. L.A. Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said the best data on restaurants comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which published information showing infected Americans were two times more likely to have dined out as those who were not infected.

Davis went on to add that restaurants are the one place people are allowed to gather in groups without masks. “You cannot wear your face covering while you drink,” he said. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl agreed with this assertion.

Earlier this morning, the California Restaurant Association sought a court order in Los Angeles Superior Court to bar suspension of outdoor dining, but it was rejected by a judge.

Barger and Hahn brought a last-minute motion asking their colleagues to reconsider the plan. At the suggestion of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and based on a pending lawsuit by restaurant owners, the board moved into closed session to discuss it and get legal input. After returning, the board rejected the motion. That means the ban will take effect as scheduled tomorrow night.

Said Ridley-Thomas in a statement, “Today, the Board of Supervisors reaffirmed the Health Officer’s recommendation to close outdoor dining in light of alarming new rates of new Covid-19 cases.

“These are not decisions that we have made lightly. We are acutely aware of the compromises all Angelenos have been forced to make in order to protect the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. Unfortunately, as we seek to balance the public health and economic health of our region, there is no win-win outcome. There are downsides to every decision.”

Barger cited estimates by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation that about 700,000 food industry jobs could be lost, with 75% of those losses affecting workers earning $50,000 or less annually.

“These proposed measures by the Department of Public Health will further devastate local businesses and employees who have been asked to shoulder an unfair burden this year,” Barger said in a statement.

Barger said only 10%-15% of positive Covid-19 cases are related to dining out with someone who tested positive, while more than half are connected to private social gatherings. Closing outdoor dining — where compliance with health orders is high — could also create the unintended consequence of prompting more private gatherings, she said.

“Businesses have made incredible sacrifices to align with safety protocols to remain open in order to pay their bills and feed their families,” Barger said. “Increased case counts are not coming from businesses reopening, but from large gatherings where people aren’t wearing masks. We aren’t helpless in slowing the spread of Covid-19 and can protect ourselves and our neighbors by maintaining physical distancing and wearing face coverings.”

Barger went on Fox 11 Los Angeles on Monday night to express her concerns, saying, “To close down one industry based off no science concerns me…I feel it’s arbitrary and it’s punitive.”

A release from Ferrer’s office Monday seemed aimed at Barger’s arguments. It read in part:

In just a two-week period, from October 31 to November 14, we have seen outbreaks in food facilities increase by over 200%. Food facilities includes restaurants, bottling plants, food processing facilities, grocery stores, and other food-related businesses that are operating in the County.

During the same time period, we have seen a 67% increase in outbreaks at general worksites which include many other worksites, including warehouse facilities, essential office worksites, retailers and manufacturing facilities.

One other board member, Hahn, expressed concern about the in-person dining ban Sunday night. “While I know our case counts are growing rapidly, I would have rather discussed this measure openly during our Board of Supervisors meeting so that the public could understand the rationale behind it,” she wrote on her Twitter page. “Some of these restaurants are barely hanging on. I hope this isn’t the last nail in their coffins. I wish we could have figured out a way to put in more restrictions rather than completely shutting down dining.”

Ferrer insisted in her Monday media briefing that the board was fully apprised last week of the planned restrictions, including the end to in-person dining, and the county publicly announced plans in a news release issued last week.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl echoed that sentiment, telling City News Service the board was in full agreement last Tuesday about the ban.

“All five of us agreed,” Kuehl said. “So I was surprised to hear that Kathryn [Barger] had taken it upon herself to individually express opposition. I don’t see any support for that position anywhere and certainly, I don’t support it.”

“Outdoor dining is probably more dangerous in terms of contagion than any other kind of business,” Kuehl said on Monday.

She said diners at restaurants “sit for hours with no masks on” and are in close proximity to servers and patrons walking by.

The vast majority of the public comments at the meeting were about the order ending in-person dining.

Restaurant owners and officials from Redondo Beach, Glendale, Santa Clarita, La Verne, Covina, Pasadena and other locales weighed in against increased restaurant restrictions. In general, they urged reconsideration and focus more on preventing small and large gatherings, which they maintained were the primary cause of the surge.

Said one member of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, “These restrictions create an untenable situation for our businesses…We urge you to reconsider these guidelines.”

On Friday, the county implemented other restrictions that generally limited retail capacity and restricted outdoor gatherings.

California on Saturday night imposed a soft curfew, barring “nonessential work, movement and gatherings” between 10 p.m.-5 a.m., continuing nightly until the morning of December 21.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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