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L.A. County must show evidence for outdoor dining ban, judge orders

Supporters of area restaurants listen to a news conference.
Supporters and business owners of area restaurants listen to a news conference held by the California Coalition for Safe Reopening at the Abbey in West Hollywood on Nov. 25.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A judge on Wednesday ordered Los Angeles County public health officials to show scientific evidence justifying the outdoor dining ban imposed last week amid soaring coronavirus cases.

Outdoor dining had offered a lifeline for struggling restaurants during the pandemic. The California Restaurant Assn. sued to stop the ban, with a downtown L.A. restaurant, Engine Co. No. 28, filing a similar suit.

The county must return to court Tuesday to present evidence supporting the ban, L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant said at a hearing Wednesday morning.

“You have to do a risk-benefit analysis for public health. You don’t just talk about the risk of spreading disease. You have to talk about the benefit of keeping restaurants open,” Chalfant said.

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Chalfant expressed some skepticism about the ban. Based on the studies he has reviewed, the risk of spreading the coronavirus from outdoor dining appears minimal, he said.

But the county should have a chance to “answer those questions and fill those holes,” the judge said.

The Beverly Hills council says the outdoor dining ban amid COVID-19 hurts local businesses and isn’t backed by scientific evidence.

Chalfant also asked county officials to explain why the ban was keyed to the five-day average of new coronavirus cases hitting 4,000.

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The county must provide data on hospital capacity and intensive care beds to support its claim that the healthcare system would be overwhelmed without the ban, the judge said.

He also requested that the county provide a rationale for deviating from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state reopening blueprint, which permits outdoor dining and requires a risk-benefit analysis for restrictions that are stricter than those of the state.

Amnon Siegel, an attorney for the county, said at the hearing that dining in public is inherently risky, “because you cannot wear your mask and you are not distancing.”

Siegel said some data, including hospital capacity, are tricky to provide because they constantly fluctuate and are based on complex contingency plans.

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The county is sensitive to the negative effects of the restrictions, he added.

“We understand the pain and hardship that people have gone through over the last nine months,” he said. “And that does absolutely play a role” in decision-making.

L.A. County’s outdoor dining ban went into effect Nov. 25 and is slated to last three weeks as coronavirus cases rise to unprecedented levels.

Restaurant owners and their employers are desperate. But the virus is out of control. Where’s Washington with some relief when we need it?

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A divided L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted against overturning the ban. Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who opposes the ban, expressed concern that “this county has taken the approach of everything should be closed, unless we have a good reason to open it.”

The L.A. and Beverly Hills city councils have passed resolutions opposing the ban and asking the supervisors to reconsider.

Pasadena, which has its own public health department and can set its own coronavirus policies, is allowing outdoor dining to continue, provided that everyone at a table is from the same household and parties are no larger than six.

Mark Geragos, an attorney for Engine Co. No. 28, which he owns, said the evidence provided by the county so far does not speak specifically to outdoor dining.

Expert testimony submitted by the county was “masterful” in utilizing data related to indoor dining without getting specific about outdoor dining, he said.

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Meanwhile, with another week before Chalfant considers a temporary restraining order, restaurant owners and their employees will suffer, said Dennis Ellis, an attorney for the association.

“I trust the court recognizes that there are people, out of work, who are not earning a living,” he said.


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