Restaurants navigate another wave of changes with mask and vaccine requirements

Masked people work in a restaurant kitchen
Elaine Chang and Steven Park at Yang’s Kitchen in Alhambra in 2021. The elimination of mask and proof-of-vaccination mandates leaves restaurants to create their own policies.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

The same could possibly be said for mask and vaccine requirements in Los Angeles, where restaurant workers and owners have juggled sometimes confusing and contradictory guidance on state, county and local levels during the last two years.

Mere weeks ago, it would have been almost unthinkable to not have to flash proof of vaccination before dining indoors in LA. But soon, diners may not be required to do that.


The SafePassLA program, adopted Nov. 8 by the city of Los Angeles, was one of the strictest in the country. It required full proof of COVID-19 vaccination for visitors to most public indoor facilities, including restaurants and bars. Enforcement of the program, which began in late November, coincided with a surge of COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant spread throughout the country.

On March 9, the City Council voted unanimously to begin the process of repealing the city’s proof-of-vaccination requirement. This came on the heels of Los Angeles County relaxing its indoor mask and proof-of-vaccination mandates, effectively leaving individual business owners to create their own policies. Indoor mask wearing is still “strongly recommended” by the county, and large indoor “mega events” with 1,000 or more attendees will still require vaccination proof.

Where does that leave restaurant owners and staff? As ever, doing their best to go with the flow and keep up with rules that might very well change again in a few months. COVID-19 cases have been declining throughout California since the winter’s Omicron surge, but a recent increase in cases of Omicron subvariant BA.2 leaves open the possibility for another spike in the near future.

And they’re left to set their own rules regarding COVID protocol — not only what to require of visiting diners, but also of their own staff.

“Ever since the first shutdown, there was no guidance whatsoever from the health department, let alone our local government,” said Raymond Yaptinchay, co-chef/owner of Spoon & Pork, with locations in Sawtelle and Silver Lake.

“It’s crazy how they change rules and we don’t get notice,” he said. “I have to find out by watching the news.”


Nonetheless, for Yaptinchay and his staff, the repeal of mask and vaccination laws is coming prematurely. “It’s too early to be doing this,” he said.

“I get it, everyone is tired of wearing these masks, [but] we’re on the front lines,” he said, referring to himself and his restaurant staff.

Yaptinchay requires his staff to be vaccinated and boosted. Front-of-house staff will also continue to wear masks for the time being, he said, a choice that they made. He said diners have been “somewhat compliant” regarding vaccination rules. “If they make a fuss, I say, ‘You’re more than welcome to eat outside.’”

Lusy Gradzhyan, owner of Lusy’s Mediterranean Cafe in Van Nuys, echoed Yaptinchay’s frustration with inconsistent government messaging.

“Between CDC, county health, state and federal announcements, it was sometimes hard to navigate which rules applied and when. We stuck to county health,” Gradzhyan said through a translator.

“Now that regulations are being lifted, it’s a relief from the confusion and understandable customer frustration,” she said.


Courtland Kimberly Miller, executive chef and co-owner of Main Kitchen Cafe, with locations in Canoga Park and Granada Hills, described his staff as “a bit relieved” at the relaxing of protocols, adding that it’s up to staff whether they want to continue to mask up.

“Even though our staff is 100% vaccinated, it’s up to them if they wish to keep the mask and some of them do,” Miller said.

Octavio Olivas, chef/owner of Ceviche Project in Los Angeles, welcomes the recent changes. “The last couple of weeks it feels like things are going back to normal, which is really, really good,” he said.

Keeping his staff healthy is made more difficult by Ceviche Project’s small size — it has bar seating and just a few tables. “My restaurant is super small,” Olivas said. “It kind of doesn’t matter that we’re wearing masks — people are right in front of us with no masks.”

Olivas has adopted in-house COVID testing for his staff of five people — for the last four months, whenever someone has felt sick, they’re able to test and get results within minutes. He said everyone on his staff is vaccinated and that mask-wearing is optional.

With one notable exception, Olivas said, customers have been good about following the rules. “We had one incident where a regular said, ‘We’re vaccinated.’” But that turned out not to be the case.


“After a couple wines they said, ‘We’re not getting the jab.’” Olivas and his team were shocked.

“We said, ‘You have to go outside.’”

Olivas said he and his team have remained focused on their work and will adapt to future law changes as they come.

“We’re here; the summer’s going to be great,” he said. “We’re just in positive mode.”