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Tempers flare as Southern California restaurants push back on outdoor dining ban

Visitors to Old Pasadena dine outdoors along Colorado Boulevard on Sunday, Nov. 29.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The last hurrah of outdoor dining in Pasadena arrived on a Friday evening.

On Dec. 4, diners seeking what would likely be their last on-site meal of 2020 filled restaurant and bar patios along Colorado Boulevard, with lines forming outside many businesses. Some, such as the modern French bistro Perle, became so busy that staff members began asking customers to give up their tables after 90 minutes in order to seat waiting guests.

Two days later, however, those crowds had mostly vanished.

Though it had been the last remaining holdout of outdoor dining in L.A. County, Pasadena had finally implemented a ban on on-site dining in compliance with a sweeping regional health order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that took effect on Sunday, Dec. 6.

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“You plan for one thing, then something else happens. I wish they would give us more time. I think that’s where all the restaurateurs are at: Give us more time to prepare,” Armando Ramirez, co-owner of El Portal, told the Pasadena Star-News.

The new regulations capped a tumultuous few days for restaurant owners and government officials as tensions flared over the rollout of an expansive outdoor dining ban that sought to curb a record-setting surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the region. But as what began as an L.A. County health order two weeks ago became reinforced by a more stricter state order on Sunday, defiant restaurant operators were left with a stark choice: Close outdoor dining or risk being shut down by health department authorities.

Eat at Joe’s, a popular Redondo Beach diner that recently gained attention for a banner poking fun at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s visit to the French Laundry, was shuttered by the L.A. County Public Health Department on Dec. 4. Owner Alex Jordan had defied countywide orders issued earlier in the week by continuing to offer service on his restaurant’s outdoor patio.

After a warning from health officials that the restaurant would be temporarily shut down, Jordan switched to takeout-only on Friday and posted an “outdoor dining is closed” sign, though customers were still able to seat themselves and eat at tables under a large outdoor tent in Eat at Joe’s parking lot.

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Still, the changes weren’t enough to gain the approval of county inspectors. Jordan was forced to close his restaurant for at least 10 days pending an appeal and was fined $500.

“They came with the intent to close me down,” he told the Daily Breeze. “They wanted to close me down.”

Another controversy went viral on social media that same weekend after Angela Marsden, who owns Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill in Sherman Oaks, posted a video showing a closed outdoor dining space at her restaurant next door to a collection of tents and tables being used as a catering station for a film crew.

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“Tell me that this is dangerous, but right next to me — as a slap in my face — that’s safe?” Marsden said in the video, expressing outrage over the county’s decision to ban outdoor dining but allow film production to continue.

Though county health department officials issued a statement noting that film crews are regularly tested for the virus and do not mingle for extended periods of time without masks, the backlash over the video led to an afternoon protest on Saturday, Dec. 5 outside the Santa Monica home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

A few dozen protesters, including Marsden and several Sherman Oaks restaurant owners, chanted “Reopen! Reopen!” and held signs bearing messages urging government officials to open outdoor dining once again.

The week prior, a crowd of a few hundred people gathered for a similar protest march in Long Beach led by local business owners Ryan Choura and Trent Bryson and backed by the Long Beach Restaurant Assn. The group, which included many local restaurant workers, pushed for Long Beach officials to reconsider their decision to follow the guidance of the L.A. County health department in shutting down in-person dining.

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It wasn’t just restaurant owners and protesters pushing back against the L.A. County ban on outdoor dining. Cities such as Beverly Hills, La Verne, San Dimas, Claremont, Whittier, West Covina, Hawaiian Gardens and Lancaster have approved motions expressing disagreement with L.A. County’s decision or have floated the possibility of establishing health departments that are independent of the county’s jurisdiction.

“Cities can only establish their own health departments with state approval and demonstrated capacity to perform essential public health functions,” L.A. County Department of Public Health officials said in a statement. The stay-at-home order issued by Newsom over the weekend makes the topic largely irrelevant at the moment, as state health orders supersede any issued by cities or counties.

Not all city governments have been deterred, however. On Dec. 3, the city of Manhattan Beach announced a new policy intended to help restaurants that would keep the outdoor dining areas intact, allowing customers to use them as public seating areas. Under the city’s new rules, diners can pick up their food to-go and eat at restaurant-owned tables, as long as diners sanitize their table after each use.

“Our business community is struggling to survive the County’s latest restrictions and the City has a win-win solution to help, while safeguarding public health,” Manhattan Beach Mayor Suzanne Hadley said in a statement.

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But L.A. County officials responded with a statement that quickly threw water on the city’s proposed workaround. “Outdoor dining of any kind,” the statement said, “is prohibited in Los Angeles County under the current Health Officer Order.”

Hadley said that she was confident the new outdoor seating areas, which are technically owned by the city, would comply with all health order guidelines and that city officials would continue to evaluate the situation.

A handful of L.A. restaurants have sought to continue offering outdoor seating through similar loopholes; Swork, a coffee shop in Eagle Rock, opened its tables to customers engaged in “peaceful protest,” while Heroic Italian, a deli in Santa Monica, promoted a “public picnic park” on Instagram.

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Other restaurants across Southern California stated on social media that they planned to defy the state ban on outdoor dining outright, including Blackbird Tavern in Temecula and Basilico’s Pasta e Vino in Huntington Beach.

Some restaurant owners, such as Jordan of Eat at Joe’s, have placed their hopes in a recent lawsuit filed by the California Restaurant Assn. in which L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled that L.A. County must provide evidence supporting the implementation of the outdoor dining ban.

On Tuesday, Chalfant issued a preliminary ruling that L.A. County acted “arbitrarily” in restricting outdoor dining, but noted that due to the state’s regional stay-at-home order, the ban would remain in effect for the time being, leaving business owners with few legal resources as COVD-19 cases continue to grow at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, a recent restaurant relief effort launched by L.A. County has been hobbled by rollout issues. A website for the Keep L.A. County Dining program, which offers $30,000 grants to qualifying businesses struggling during the pandemic, crashed on Thursday due to overwhelming demand.

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A new application for the program was posted by county officials on Monday, Dec. 7, meaning that restaurants had to rush to reapply in order to be one of the first 2,500 approved applications to be eligible for the grant.

The city of Los Angeles also announced a program called Secure Emergency Relief for Vulnerable Employees, which will issue one-time $800 stipends to 4,000 out-of-work or underemployed restaurant workers.

If there are too many applicants, officials said, eligible workers will be selected at random.

For some restaurants, such as the long-running diner Nick’s in Chinatown, any relief from the outdoor dining ban was unlikely to arrive soon enough.

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“The city shut us down [for outdoor dining]. Then lies to us about this grant. Does the city realize the lives that are destroyed by their actions? I doubt we will ever open again,” owner Rod Davis wrote in a series of Facebook posts announcing the restaurant’s closure.

“We had a good business. We had employees who worked with us for years. Now we are all broken.”

Updates:

4:19 PM, Dec. 08, 2020: This story has been updated with Judge Chalfant’s Tuesday preliminary ruling. Other time elements have been updated as well.


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