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L.A. County to reopen indoor restaurants, gyms, movie theaters as early as Monday

A couple with masks eat at a restaurant.
Jason Ruckart, center, a managing partner at Roy’s Restaurant in Woodland Hills, hands chopsticks to customers Nicole Lehning and her husband, Kyle, as they dine outdoors.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Restaurants, gyms, museums and movie theaters in Los Angeles County will soon be allowed to reopen for indoor activity, according to a public health announcement made Thursday that marks the first major reopening of businesses in months.

The county will be eligible for the reopenings as soon as California reaches its goal of administering 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to residents in its most disadvantaged areas — which appears likely to happen Friday.

After clearing that hurdle, the state will relax the threshold for counties to move from the most restrictive purple category of its four-tier reopening blueprint, clearing a number of them — including Los Angeles — to advance into the less-restrictive red tier.

Indoor dining is off-limits entirely in the purple tier but allowed in the red at limited capacity. The milestone will also trigger expanded activity at retail and personal care services, which will be allowed to increase capacity to 50% with masking required for all services.

If the vaccination threshold is met Friday, the new L.A. County public health officer order could go into effect as early as Monday.

Under the new health order, private gatherings would be allowed with up to three households, with masking and distancing required at all times. People who are fully vaccinated could gather in small numbers indoors with others who are fully vaccinated without masks or distancing requirements.

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“We plan to move into the red tier very soon, and that allows for more reopenings and permitted activities in L.A. County,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

“This milestone is the result of businesses and individuals working together and doing their part to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.”

The deal is good news for working parents of elementary school children, who can remain on campus all day. Union members will vote next week.

The new health order will mark the first time in more than eight months that residents can eat indoors at a restaurant. Capacity will be capped at 25%.

Patrons must sit at least eight feet apart from other tables, and indoors, only one household with a maximum of six people per table is allowed. Restaurants can allow up to six people per table from three households to dine together outdoors.

Restaurants need a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system “in good working order” and, to the greatest extent possible, increase ventilation.

Public health officers strongly recommend that all restaurant employees interacting with customers indoors be provided with additional face protection. Workers should be given N95 or KN95 masks, or double masks, along with a face shield, health officials said.

In addition, all employees working indoors should be “informed about and offered opportunities to be vaccinated,” according to a statement released Thursday. L.A. County food service workers, including those who work in restaurant dining, table service, carry-out and food preparation, have been eligible for the vaccine since March 1.

Breweries, wineries and distilleries can again operate outdoors statewide under new health guidance released Thursday.

Other changes set to take place in L.A. County’s health officer order include:

  • Museums, zoos and aquariums could open indoors at 25% capacity.
  • Gyms, fitness centers, yoga and dance studios could open indoors at 10% capacity with masking requirement for all indoor activities.
  • Movie theaters could open indoors at 25% capacity with reserved seating only where each group is seated with at least six feet of distance in all directions between any other groups.
  • Retail and personal care services can increase capacity to 50% with masking required at all times and for all services.
  • Indoor shopping malls can increase capacity to 50% with common areas remaining closed; food courts can open at 25% capacity adhering to the restaurant guidance for indoor dining.
  • Institutes of higher education can reopen all permitted activities with required safety modifications except for residential housing, which remains under current restrictions for the spring semester.
  • Schools are permitted to reopen for in-person instruction for students in grades 7-12 adhering to all state and county directives.

L.A. County will allow theaters, restaurants, gyms and more to more widely reopen Monday. The changes come as COVID-19 cases continue to plummet.

Also Thursday, state public health officials updated their guidelines to allow breweries, wineries and distilleries to operate outdoors statewide, even if they don’t serve food.

For businesses in counties in the purple and red tiers, the two strictest of the state’s four-category reopening plan, patrons will be required to make reservations and be subject to a 90-minute time limit, according to the latest state guidance, and on-site consumption must stop by 8 p.m.

Bars that don’t serve food will remain closed in the purple and red tiers, though they can reopen outdoors with modifications in the less restrictive orange tier.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health has not yet announced whether it will follow the state’s lead for these reopenings.

For months, the scene inside all L.A. County restaurants was the same — tables roped off, chairs stacked in corners or on top of tables, and signs cautioning patrons that tables were temporarily closed.

On July 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the immediate closure of indoor operations at restaurants, wineries, tasting rooms, movie theaters, zoos, museums and card rooms in California’s hardest-hit areas, including L.A. County. His announcement came after California broke a record for new daily coronavirus infections — 8,610 cases, according to The Times’ tracker — for the second consecutive day.

The worst was yet to come, though.

Counties that allowed restaurant dining saw increases in COVID-19 case and death rates, while those that implemented mask mandates saw declines in both.

Thursday’s announcement comes about six weeks after L.A. County lifted its outdoor dining ban, allowing restaurants to reopen their patios and tables outside at 50% capacity, with tables at least eight feet apart.

It was much-needed relief for an industry battered by the pandemic. An estimated 110,000 restaurants across the country have closed in the past year, according to the National Restaurant Assn.

Data show that 1.4 million residents worked in restaurants before the pandemic. Since the closures last March, about 1 million workers have been laid off or furloughed.

In previous efforts to reopen the economy, elected officials have provided contradicting statements about how to best protect the public from the virus versus the heavy toll of unemployment and closures.

Last spring, as the coronavirus spread across the country, Los Angeles County saw a fraction of the hospitalizations and deaths in New York, and local officials — after stressing the importance of moving slowly in reopening the economy and estimating it would be July before those decisions were made — hurriedly announced in late May that indoor dining would resume. The reopening led to a summer surge in cases.

By early July, with California’s coronavirus cases soaring, hospitals began to fill near capacity.

In late August, Newsom announced a four-tier reopening system that mandated counties meet specific metrics before being allowed to resume various business sectors.

“We’re going to be more stubborn this time,” Newsom said at the time. “This more stringent, but we believe more steady, approach.”

Since then, L.A. County has been plagued by high rates of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths and has yet to leave the purple tier.

Over the past year, the closures have been met with resistance from local officials, many of whom faced pressure from restaurateurs and chambers of commerce to reopen.

A South Korean study raises concerns that six feet of social distance may not be far enough to keep people safe from the coronavirus.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, L.A. County officials announced they would restrict for at least three weeks all in-person dining and limit restaurants — along with breweries, wineries and bars — to takeout and delivery service. The announcement came after the county’s five-day average of new coronavirus cases topped 4,000, a threshold officials had set for implementing the restriction.

A few days later, at a county Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District spans north from Alhambra to the Kern County line, introduced an emergency proposal to roll back the outdoor dining ban, even though county health officials had said it was necessary. The measure was voted down 3-2, with Supervisor Janice Hahn co-authoring and supporting the measure.

“This is the only business that allows its customers to remain, and often for quite a while, unmasked,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said at the November meeting. “And that, I think, is enough to single it out right there. We tried, but the numbers have gone up.”

Times staff writers Taryn Luna and Phil Willon contributed to this report.


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