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Judge limits L.A. County outdoor dining ban in searing rebuke, but state order remains

Friends toast at Cronies sports bar and grill in Agoura Hills.
Connley Peterson, left, Garrett Lambert, Erin Mazza and Teresa Frase toast while singing along to “Proud to Be an American” at Cronies sports bar and grill in Agoura Hills on Monday night.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A judge has limited Los Angeles County’s outdoor dining ban to three weeks, even as a state order will keep the restrictions in place past Christmas, according to a ruling issued Tuesday.

At a court hearing, the latest to address a pair of challenges to the ban, L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant said county public health officials must conduct a risk-benefit analysis if they want to extend the ban past its current end date, Dec. 16.

“The county should be prevented from continuing the restaurant closure order indefinitely,” Chalfant said in the decision.

The county health department imposed a three-week ban as coronavirus cases began to soar. It went into effect Nov. 25, but was superseded late Sunday by a sweeping regional stay-at-home order that banned all in-person restaurant dining across most of California. Triggered when available intensive care unit capacity in a given region falls below 15%, the state order will last for at least three weeks.

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With the state order in effect, there is no immediate practical impact of the ruling. Outdoor dining will remain off limits. But it amounted to a rebuke of the county’s justification for imposing the ban.

“The issue here is, is shutting down outdoor dining going to help in any significant way, or is it just something to do?” Chalfant said at the court hearing.

Swift backlash followed the county ban, which opponents said could spell the end for restaurants and bars already struggling during the pandemic. The California Restaurant Assn. sued and a downtown L.A. restaruant, Engine Co. No. 28, sued separately to lift the ban.

At the hearing Tuesday, Chalfant said the county should consider the economic and psychological costs of closing more than 30,000 restaurants and assess whether the ban had the intended effect — easing the strained hospital system amid skyrocketing coronavirus cases.

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“Is it going to help, or is it just a drop in the ocean of a much bigger problem?” Chalfant said at the hearing. “And I don’t know, it’s not my job to make that decision, it’s the public health officials’ job.”

The county’s attorney, Amnon Siegel, said his client “vehemently disagrees” with Chalfant’s ruling.

Siegel said the judge was asking for “some kind of analysis that puts a value on long-term illness and death,” adding, “That’s not even feasible.”

Siegel also said the court was overreaching by attempting to sway county health policy.

“There is no admission by the county that they have failed to conduct the proper balancing analysis,” Siegel said. “They haven’t conducted the analysis that the court would like them to conduct, but the court’s not in the business of policymaking.”

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Mark Geragos, owner of and attorney for the restaurant, called the county’s restrictions “political theater” and the county’s unwillingness to consider them an error, “intellectual shelter-in-place.”

“It has driven people to the point where they will not...expect guidance from the county because they know the guidance given to them by the county is absolutely baseless,” he said.

L.A. County public health officials on Saturday announced they will issue an order suspending outdoor dining at restaurants amid a surge of new coronavirus cases.

The judge last week had said he wanted to give the county time to show concrete proof that the health benefits outweigh the negative economic impacts of the dining ban.

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Referencing a pair of studies from Japan and China, Chalfant on Tuesday said the results did not support that outdoor dining is more than a moderate risk “at best.”

Chalfant said the county made only “generalized” arguments that outdoor dining is inherently risky because patrons aren’t wearing masks and aren’t socially distancing. And he blasted American public health officials at all levels of government for not studying the specific risk of outdoor dining since the pandemic started.

Officials “in nine months have not seriously looked at outdoor dining, and then ... impose a restriction preventing outdoor dining,” he said. “That’s just shocking.”

Although he agreed that intensive care beds were dwindling, he said he thought it was possible to reconfigure hospitals to add more.

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At a news conference Tuesday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California health and human services secretary, declined to directly comment on Chalfant’s ruling.

The decision to close outdoor restaurant dining as well as other business sectors “really has to do with the goal of trying to keep people at home,” Ghaly said. “Now’s not the time to spend additional time outside of your household, potentially mixing with others, transmitting the illness far and wide.”

Staff writer Ron-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.


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