Food & Drink

When Will Outdoor Dining Return to LA?

Like all things COVID, the future remains unclear.

In March, when Governor Gavin Newsom invoked California’s status as a “nation-state,” in order to create stricter coronavirus guidelines during a time when the President was still skeptical of the virus’ legitimacy, residents eagerly fell in line with the new restrictions, determined to do their part to “slow the spread.” The restaurant industry pulled off a Tony Hawk-worthy pivot, shifting first to takeout and delivery options then gearing up with PPE and expanding their parking lots into astroturfed, string-lit patios when Mayor Garcetti announced his LA Alfresco initiative in late May.

Months into this new “normal,” Angelenos were dealt yet another blow the day before Thanksgiving, when the LA County Board of Supervisors approved the closure of outdoor dining for at least the following three weeks. The cities of Pasadena and Long Beach, which have their own separate health departments, overruled the order to keep outdoor dining open, while Beverly Hills, Whittier, and Lancaster began taking measures to create their own health departments. However, all cities’ plans were stymied when the new state order superseded their directives.

What’s the current status of outdoor dining in LA? 

Overlapping the LA County order that went into effect on November 25, the newest stay-at-home orders went into effect on December 6, and ban outdoor dining across 11 Southern California counties until at least December 28, depending on whether ICU capacity increases to 15% or more beds available by that time. If the region remains below 15% capacity, the order will be extended three more weeks. As of December 21, Southern California had 0% ICU availability.
 

How is the restaurant industry coping with the latest restrictions? 

The same day that the new state order went into effect, restaurant and bar owners protested outside of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s Santa Monica home. Kuehl came under fire for dining outdoors at a restaurant mere hours after she had voted to eliminate outdoor dining, with protestors insisting they were being punished for a surge in cases without proof that outdoor dining contributes to the spread of the virus. Many in the industry argue that outdoor dining decreases the amount of people gathering indoors in private residences, which has been proven to spread the virus. 

Shortly after the December 6 outdoor dining ban went into effect, the California Restaurant Association brought a suit challenging the order. Superior Court Judge James Chalfant sided with the association and ruled that the LA County Health Director had acted “arbitrarily” in banning outdoor dining without presenting evidence of its risk in spreading the virus or weighing the benefits of the restrictions against their costs. Judge Chalfant shortened the ban to three weeks (set to end on December 16) and ordered that the Department of Public Health conduct a risk-benefit analysis before attempting to extend the ban. Though the suit represented a win for the much-beleaguered industry, LA County has since appealed that ruling, calling Judge Chalfant’s ruling, “plainly erroneous and directly contrary to governing law” and saying that the ban is well within the powers of the Department of Public Health, while citing the latest wave of COVID infections as justification. This latest appeal makes it unlikely that the association will escalate to challenge the state order, but it sets the grounds for similar challenges in the future.

Unable to sustain another COVID-inflicted change after several pivots to meet regulations, many of LA’s favorite eateries—Manuela in DTLA, Fingers Crossed in Hollywood, and The Rose Venice, to name just a few—have closed temporarily, hoping that the new year will bring clarity on the future of dining out.

Across other parts of the city and Southern California counties, some restaurant owners, frustrated with the seemingly endless back-and-forth and skeptical of the efficacy of the latest outdoor dining ban, have begun openly defying the orders.

Is outdoor dining still happening illegally?

Several days after the order was imposed, restaurants in downtown Fullerton continued serving customers in outdoor patio areas and on city property. In Manhattan Beach, officials re-categorized outdoor dining areas as public seating, a policy that quickly drew criticism from the county’s Department of Public Health. Further south in Temecula’s Old Town, restaurant and bar owners have banded together to defy the state orders and thus far, Riverside County has held off on penalizing them with fees. In Orange County, more than 60 restaurants have remained open for outdoor seating, using the hashtag #OpenSafe to draw attention to their protests. Mastro’s Ocean Club in Malibu has continued serving diners under a tented setup revealed by TMZ, and Tinhorn Flats in Burbank declared on their Facebook page that they will not observe the mandate and has continued serving diners on their patio.

Where is it legal to eat outdoors in Southern California?

Diners don’t necessarily have to risk penalization tickets or public judgment when searching for outdoor dining options. Places like the Row DTLA have previously installed public seating that can be used when ordering takeout from restaurants Pikunico, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and Hayato

In other parts of the city, clever foodies can pop open their takeout on public benches along the Venice Boardwalk, at Echo Park Lake, on the lawn at Griffith Park, The Steps in downtown Culver City, and other city property that remains open.

What does the future hold for dining (outdoor or otherwise) in LA? 

It’s hard to say when outdoor dining will officially return to LA. On December 14, a bipartisan group of 11 state senators approached Gov. Newson with the request to categorize restaurants as essential businesses and permit them to reopen across the state, with the letter stating that, “these essential businesses do more than simply provide a place to eat. Restaurants are active participants in local neighborhoods, providing meals to senior citizens and working with food banks to feed families struggling to put food on their tables.”

The petitioning senators pointed out that 1.8 million jobs statewide fall into the food and beverage industry, with 60% of restaurants being owned by POC and 50% being owned or partially owned by women. The absence of widespread federal support leaves the future of these restaurants and places of work in the balance.

LA diners could be forced to make mini road trips to Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo, for outdoor dining, as the three Central California counties have requested that the state consider them separate from the current 11-county Southern California region, provided the capacity of their ICU units exceeds 15% on December 28. However, this seems unlikely, as Ventura County’s ICU capacity has dropped to 1% in recent days.

With all roads pointing to “Wait and see where we’re at on December 28,” the best thing we can all do is limit non-essential travel, keep wearing our masks, maintain social distance when outdoors, and support our fave LA restaurants, breweries, and bars by ordering takeout so that they’ll be around for outdoor dining in the new year. 

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Danielle Dorsey is the Los Angeles Editor at Thrillist.