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Op-Ed: Restaurants have become pandemic scapegoats. My last one is struggling to survive

Patrons eat outdoors at Playa Provisions restaurant as two children sit at a fire pit.
An outdoor dining space at Playa Provisions, shown in 2014, in Playa del Rey.
(Los Angeles Times)

Before the pandemic, my husband and I managed a staff of more than 100 among our four restaurants. Now we’re down to one location, in Playa del Rey.

Decimating our staff was never part of our business plan.

Since March, we’ve permanently closed Da Kikokiko in Playa Vista and the Tripel in Playa del Rey. We recently sold Hudson House in Redondo Beach, which left us with Playa Provisions and a part-time staff of 12 going into the holiday season.

How did we get here? Restaurants are being treated as scapegoats — quick to be blamed for a spike in COVID-19 cases, without evidence. The most recent Los Angeles County outdoor dining shutdown, which went into effect Nov. 25, seemed like it was just another in a series of government restrictions that make zero scientific sense.

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When L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ordered Los Angeles County public health officials to present scientific evidence by Tuesday justifying the outdoor dining ban, I experienced a minor moment of relief and thought, “Could this be progress?” It felt like a potential step forward.

Chalfant was speaking for many in my industry on Wednesday when he said, “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.”

The next day our industry was dealt another setback when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued far-reaching statewide restrictions that included requiring restaurants to return to takeout service only for at least three weeks. We realize these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures, but, looking out my restaurant window, it just feels like my industry is being unfairly targeted.

Evidence shows the latest spike in COVID cases, specifically in Los Angeles County, is a direct result of indoor gatherings. Closing outdoor dining will likely drive people to gather privately indoors, which is potentially far more dangerous than eating outdoors at restaurants that take COVID-19 precautions and social distancing extremely seriously.

In our “Dispatches From the Pandemic” series, we bring you personal stories from people whose lives have been altered by COVID-19.

At Playa Provisions, we haven’t offered indoor seating since March, except for a couple of weeks in early summer when pandemic restrictions were eased. As part of an industry that’s already held to higher health standards than most, Playa Provisions has passed four county health department inspections since the beginning of the pandemic, demonstrating success in adhering to constantly evolving COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

With a full-service patio, and no indoor dining, we were back to averaging about 50% of our usual sales and 75% of our normal staffing for this time of the year (minus the usual holiday parties and catering). It didn’t last. With the latest elimination of outdoor seating, our revenue has fallen to about 15% of the norm, causing us to furlough nearly 40 more employees. The outdoor heaters and additional weatherproof coverings we purchased to continue operating outdoors in cool weather now sit in our bar space turned storage unit.

The thousands of restaurant workers across Los Angeles who are losing their livelihoods are going from food-insecure to food-terrified. The average restaurant worker in Los Angeles earns about $16 an hour working 40 hours per week. If Playa Provisions is any indication, about 75%, if not more, have already lost that income. The rest will have their salaries cut roughly in half as their hours are pared back. When a restaurant closes, a domino effect occurs that affects farmers, liquor reps, delivery drivers, linen companies and so many others. We’ve already had to cut back or eliminate our cleaning crew, dishwashers, busboys, line cooks, hosts, service staff and managers.

As an industry, restaurants regularly pay it forward by contributing to philanthropic causes. Giving back is how we define our successes. However, if we are to save an industry that has tried to pivot while taking one for the greater good, then we are going to need help.

Unless the restaurant industry receives a financial bailout, we may be looking at the permanent closure of about 85% of independent restaurants, resulting in approximately 16 million people across the country losing their jobs.

I want to believe that federal and state assistance is moments away, that something as well-constructed as the federal Restaurants Act — which passed in the House in October — will become law and save the hospitality industry with a $120-billion revitalization fund that would give small and independent restaurants grants so we can make our payroll, pay our bills and keep our doors open.

Yet the bill languishes in Congress. We have no idea how long this could take, or if help will even come. As of late last week, there were optimistic rumblings of a federal relief package that would include $288 billion for struggling restaurants and small businesses. Please let it be so.

So what is our plan for survival? It changes almost daily. But if I had to answer that question today, I’d say we’re crossing our fingers that we can make it through the next few weeks of uncertainty, with the hope of reopening outdoor dining and obtaining significant financial aid. In other words, we’re awaiting an industrywide Hail Mary.

Brooke Williamson is the chef-owner of Playa Provisions and a “Top Chef” winner.


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