In a devastating blow to Los Angeles’ struggling restaurant industry, L.A. County public health officials on Sunday announced they will suspend outdoor dining at restaurants amid a surge of new coronavirus cases.
Few segments of the L.A. retail economy have been hit harder by the pandemic than the once-booming dining world, with many landmark names closing in recent months and many more on the brink. After they were forced to close indoor dining rooms in the spring, many eateries got a lifeline when officials allowed them to serve outdoors, often in patios and makeshift dining halls built in parking lots and streets.
The new rule takes effect at 10 p.m. Wednesday and restricts restaurants — along with breweries, wineries and bars — to takeout and delivery only for the first time since May. It will remain in place for at least three weeks, officials said.
Wineries and breweries can continue retail operations.
“The persistent high number of cases requires additional safety measures that limit mixing in settings where people are not wearing masks,” Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County health director, said in a statement.
Officials had warned earlier in the week that the new rule would be imposed if the five-day average of new cases reached 4,000, or if hospitalizations topped 1,750 per day.
The five-day average had reached 4,097 by Sunday, the Public Health Department said. There were 1,473 confirmed coronavirus patients in L.A. County hospitals as of Saturday, an increase of about 92% from a month before.
Officials on Sunday reported 2,718 new cases of the virus and nine deaths, bringing the toll in L.A. County to 364,520 cases and 7,438 deaths.
“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,” County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement.
“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.”
As expected, restaurateurs greeted the news with dismay.
“What do I think of it? It’s horrible. It’s another punch,” said Michael Simhai, the owner of Della Terra, an Italian restaurant in the Fairfax district, in a brief telephone interview Sunday, about 10 minutes after learning of the new restrictions.
“It will be horrible for my staff. They can’t get unemployment…. They work paycheck to paycheck. What are we going to do?”
Simhai said that he had just spent money on heaters and awnings so that he could provide outdoor dining as temperatures dip.
“We opened a back patio. We spent money reinforcing it, putting heaters in, thinking that in the holiday season, we’d make money,” said Simhai, who opened his restaurant in 2009. “All that money I spent, I can’t recover it.”
“I’m more worried about my staff. That’s who I worry about. After three weeks, who knows? How much more after that? How are they going to pay rent? What will they tell their kids?” Simhai said. “What does it mean when you have no means to put food on the table?”
He couldn’t help but feel the restaurant industry was being targeted and not being provided the aid to keep business afloat.
“I guarantee the people making these decisions make the same salary regardless of whether there is a shutdown or not.”
The pace of new coronavirus cases began to increase late last month. They’re now accelerating even more rapidly than they did in July, when new cases and hospitalizations both peaked in L.A. County, officials said.
Health officials have blamed a variety of factors, including holidays, sports championships, protest demonstrations, an increase in both social gatherings and workplace outbreaks and an overall sense of fatigue when it comes to following the rules.
They are urging everyone to stay home as much as possible for the next two to three weeks to stem the rising tide of infections and avoid overwhelming the healthcare system with a spike in hospitalizations.
An employee at the Semi-Tropic, an Echo Park bar and eatery that set up outdoor seating in a parking lot next door, said Sunday that it had been surprisingly busy of late.
“Since everybody knows a shutdown was impending, a lot of people were trying to get their time out drinking while they can,” said the employee, who declined to give his name.
This will be the second stretch of the pandemic he’s found himself out of work. The first time, it took his unemployment 10 weeks to come through.
“Somebody said what we’re feeling is the withdrawal of our addiction to certainty,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve been trying to think about it. I’ve been talking to a therapist, taking medication and learning techniques to cope with it.”
L.A. County could face even stricter rules to stem the spread of the virus if the five-day average number of cases continues to rise and tops 4,500, or if hospitalizations grow to more than 2,000 per day, officials said.
In that event, officials plan to impose a three-week stay-at-home order that would permit only essential workers and those procuring essential services to leave their homes.
“I am afraid that the way the numbers have been climbing, that’s a possibility,” County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said Sunday.
Kuehl said she understands that the move to suspend outdoor dining comes as another blow to businesses that are already suffering, but that it’s necessary to take a step backward to get a handle on the rising rate of infection.
“The more we opened up, the higher the case rate became,” she said. “It’s particularly difficult at restaurants and wineries and breweries because people sit for a long time without masks. And even outdoors, the virus still carries through the air.”
She urged people to redouble their efforts to follow public health directives: Wear face coverings. Stay six feet from others. Avoid gatherings.
“Clearly, as the case rates went up, it was an indicator that everyone was not being compliant,” she said. “I believe everyone really knew that we would have to shut down again when we reached a certain rate.”
Earlier this week, L.A. County announced that nonessential businesses must close at 10 p.m. and further limit their maximum capacity during business hours, and capped the size of outdoor gatherings at 15 people.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also imposed a modified stay-at-home order that took effect Saturday and remains in place through Dec. 21. The order prohibits most nonessential activity outside the home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in counties that are in the strictest, purple, tier of the state’s four-phase reopening plan. Roughly 94% of the state’s population lives in purple counties, including all of Southern California.
Some residents have chafed at the new statewide restrictions — even though most law enforcement agencies in Southern California said they don’t plan on enforcing them.
One minute after the governor’s order took effect Saturday night, about 200 protesters, many donning bright red caps and waving American flags, gathered at the Huntington Beach Pier.
That came a day after Orange County reported its highest one-day total of new coronavirus cases, logging 1,169 new cases Friday.
On Sunday, Orange County reported 552 new cases of the virus and three deaths, bringing its total to 69,694 cases and 1,554 deaths. Hospitalizations continued to rise, reaching 380 patients, an increase of about 126% from a month before.
Protesters have also gathered in L.A. County. A protest Friday outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s official residence was billed as “Curfew Protest Block Party: No More Lockdowns.” Another took place Sunday afternoon outside the mayor’s home.
Times staff writer Rosanna Xia contributed to this report.