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Patrons weigh risk of dining out as staff at restaurants test positive for virus, Orange County cases soar

2145 Pizza in Costa Mesa
Costa Mesa’s 2145 Pizza closed earlier this month, after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus, owners said on social media.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Orange County restaurants have been rushing to reopen since state orders last month sanctioned the return of dine-in services, as owners try to recover from devastating income losses sustained while Californians sheltered in place.

Establishments are now coming back online with new state recommendations, from spacing out seating options and requiring facial coverings to reducing hours and disinfecting in between rounds of diners.

For the record:

5:10 PM, Jun. 24, 2020An earlier version of this story misstated the address of 2145 Pizza in Costa Mesa. The restaurant is located on 2145 Placentia Ave., not 2145 Valencia Blvd.

But despite their best efforts, some area restaurants are being forced to close once more as employees test positive for the coronavirus and questions about contamination resurface.

Across Orange County, infection and hospitalization rates continue to climb as people resume their regular business habits, including trips to gyms, tattoo parlors and nail salons.

Statewide, more than 6,000 new cases were recorded by the Department of Public Health, marking the largest single-day count in the state since the pandemic hit the U.S.

In Orange County, health officials announced Monday a record number of new coronavirus cases had been reported over the weekend — 846 new infections were recorded on Saturday and Sunday alone.

Although cases had subsided by Tuesday to just 147 new infections and four deaths, for a total of 10,737 Orange County infections and 273 fatalities, the number of those hospitalized with COVID-19 rose to 351 on Monday and 349 Tuesday, the highest numbers recorded so far.

The troubling trends come less than two weeks after the Orange County Board of Supervisors announced June 11 the wearing of facial masks would be strongly recommended, not required, in public.

Now, would-be restaurant patrons are left to decide whether eating out, just because it’s allowed, is worth the risk.

Restaurants take a hit

Javier’s Cantina had to close for deep cleaning and testing after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
Javier’s Cantina in Newport Beach had to close for deep cleaning and testing after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Last week, Javier’s Cantina and the A Restaurant, two Newport Beach-based restaurants, closed their doors for deep cleaning and testing after reports employees there may have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Newport Beach-based eateries Javier’s Cantina and the A Restaurant experienced closures this week, as both shut their doors for deep cleaning and testing.

Reports of further closures — along with rumors of restaurants continuing to do business even as virus-stricken employees are sent home to self-quarantine — are popping up on social media, as Orange County diners report findings from recent visits.

Costa Mesa pizza lovers, for example, were dismayed to learn that 2145 Pizza on Placentia Avenue shut down after an employee tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

The afflicted individual began quarantining June 7 and is recovering while the rest of the staff awaits their test results, according to the pizzeria’s outgoing message.

“She’s been quarantined for the last the weeks but is feeling much better,” the message states, indicating the restaurant has been professionally cleaned. “We are just awaiting test results on the rest of the staff before opening. So far, every employee has tested negative.”

In Newport Beach, a man who works at the waterfront restaurant the Rusty Pelican reported multiple staff members had been sent home after testing positive for the virus.

The Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach
A person who works at Newport Beach’s the Rusty Pelican said members of the staff there have tested positive for the coronavirus.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“They stayed home for 14 days, and they got tested before they came back to work,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I’m actually trying to get tested now.”

More employees and one of the restaurant’s managers, he said, were sent home over the weekend after it was discovered they, too, had tested positive. Yet as of Tuesday, the restaurant was open for business with manager Justin DeLucia saying he was “not at liberty to talk about that.”

“I don’t think there are any government rules stating that they have to do anything other than stay home for 14 days,” the anonymous employee said. “I imagine in the next few weeks, most restaurants will experience something like this — especially in Orange County, where most people think it’s a crime to have to wear a face mask.”

OC Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau, in a prepared statement, reiterated claims his department could not confirm or deny details of cases associated with a particular facility. Chau did say a public health services team provides guidance in some circumstances.

“If there is a cluster of cases, depending on the number of cases and the size of the facility, we may either mandate that all staff be tested and/or a facility close for a period of time until it is clearly safe to reopen,” he said in the statement.

Landry’s, the Texas-based dining, hospitality and entertainment corporation that owns the Rusty Pelican did not respond to requests for comment made on Monday and Tuesday.

Guidelines posted on the group’s website indicate employees would be temperature-screened daily before coming to work as other enhancements — such as touchless menus, enhanced cleaning and the allowance of face masks — are being put into place.

“As we begin to reopen our dining rooms, we will continue to practice and take part in preventive measures to ensure the safety of you and your family,” the site read.

The anonymous man who reported the outbreak of coronavirus cases at the Rusty Pelican said he hadn’t seen or taken any temperature screening before reporting to work.

Citizens monitoring safety

In the absence of a countywide database that would pinpoint employee infections at area businesses, citizens with health and safety concerns are beginning to share information across social media networks.

A grassroots Facebook page, “Safe Places OC,” was started on May 24 as a way for customers to report what guidelines are being practiced, or eschewed, at local businesses, restaurants and coffee shops. Comments and photographs show good and not-so-good behaviors.

Costa Mesa resident Brandi Leger makes sure to check in with Safe Places OC before she patronizes an establishment with her husband and two sons because she wants to keep abreast of any bad actors.

“If a business has been listed there as safe, I feel comfortable going to it,” said Leger, 41. “If restaurants are not following the rules, why would they report [sick employees]?”

As Trump seeks a return to normal, his administration has considered rolling back emergency declarations that are key to states’ coronavirus responses.

And when she’s been somewhere, Leger is sure to report what she’s seen. She liked the outdoor distanced dining at Haus of Pizza but noticed tables only got a regular wipe-down between guests, whereas Super A’s Mexican food engaged in a thorough disinfecting of tables and seats.

The Facebook group maintains an interactive map called “OC Unmasked,” where members can pin a business location and indicate whether staff members there wear and encourage masks or don’t.

In Orange County, where attitudes on mask wearing can range from casual to hostile, patrons want to know where they can go and feel safe. Huntington Beach resident Sara Neitzert, who works for a local shipping company, said she’s witnessed customer backlash against mask-wearing directly.

“[Since March], we have required every single customer to wear a mask or to step outside and we can help them out front,” Neitzert said via Facebook. “I’m very tired of rude customers complaining and coughing on us on purpose because they don’t like our mask policy.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press conference Monday the state is prepared to reverse its phased reopening plan if businesses aren’t complying with guidelines. He encouraged citizens to familiarize themselves with state mandates and report bad actors.

“Read up on these guidelines,” he said. “And when you go to a restaurant and it’s clear they’re not practicing what we are preaching, report that.”

The latest coronavirus case count

Here are the latest cumulative case counts for select cities, with numbers per 10,000 residents:

  • Santa Ana: 2,260 (66.9 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Anaheim: 2,060 (57.3 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Huntington Beach: 495 (24.3 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Irvine: 283 (10.1 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Costa Mesa: 231 (19.9 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Newport Beach: 204 (23.4 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Fountain Valley: 91 (16.1 cases per 10,000 residents)
  • Laguna Beach: 54 (23.1 cases per 10,000 residents)

Updated figures are posted daily at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/coronavirus-in-oc. For information on getting tested, visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/covid-19-testing.

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