November 29, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Still unclear when indoor dining will be allowed in L.A. County despite COVID-19 gains

Los Angeles County is poised to potentially lift some coronavirus-related economic restrictions as soon as this weekend, but whether indoor dining will be among the reopenings remains an open question at this point.

Restaurant dining rooms have been largely off-limits to the public countywide since July. But with the county set to progress into the red tier — the second rung up California’s reopening ladder — those spaces could once again be open at limited capacity, provided health officials sign off.

While California allows limited indoor dining for counties in the red tier, local health officers have the power to keep more stringent rules in place, if they think doing so is warranted.

During a briefing Wednesday, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer did not specify how, or whether, the county-specific rules might ultimately differ, as health officials are still discussing that with the Board of Supervisors and representatives from relevant business sectors.

“We’re working on the guidance for restaurants, for movie theaters, for personal care sites — all of which have really different opportunities while we’re in the red tier,” she said. “Those should be released tomorrow.”

She cautioned, though, that further reopening is not cause to throw caution to the wind. L.A. County has gotten to this point because the conscious choices made by residents and businesses have worked in concert to drive down coronavirus transmission — but that progress is not inevitable, and could easily be reversed.

“I am going to urge all the businesses to, tomorrow, take a hard look at the directives,” she said. “We do need everyone to be 100% compliant with them so that we really can, in fact, stay on this recovery journey.”

Other counties have allowed indoor dining to resume with restrictions when they crossed into the red tier.

Some counties, however, have implemented stricter rules than those imposed by the state. For instance, San Francisco has gone further than the state requirements, and has limited the number of diners indoors at a table to a maximum of four people, all of whom must be from the same household. Tables must be positioned six feet apart. San Francisco has ordered that indoor dining services must stop by 10 p.m., and customers must leave by 10:30 p.m.

San Francisco’s rules for outdoor dining are more lax — allowing up to six diners from up to three different households.

L.A. County’s rules for outdoor restaurant dining allows no more than six diners, and all establishments must verbally inform customers prior to seating that everyone sharing the table must be from the same household. Tables must be positioned eight feet apart, and TVs and other screens that broadcast programming must remain off, a measure intended to avoid people gathering close together and shouting and cheering at sports games, which can increase the risk of transmission of the virus.

Restaurants have been hammered by closures and limitations implemented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While operators and prospective patrons alike have lobbied against such restrictions — at times going to court in a bid to overturn them — health officials have maintained that reducing lengthy, close-quartered clustering between unmasked members of different households, as can occur at restaurants, is among the more effective ways to rein in coronavirus transmission.

A California appeals court on March 1 ruled that L.A. County health officials can reimplement restrictions on restaurants if coronavirus cases spike again. The opinion reversed a lower court ruling on Dec. 8 that would have required the L.A. County Department of Public Health to conduct a risk-benefit analysis before it ordered restaurants to shutter their outdoor dining setups.

“Courts should be extremely deferential to public health authorities, particularly during a pandemic,” said the opinion by Justice Brian Currey and supported by the two other justices. One of the plaintiffs in the court case, criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos, who is representing an L.A. restaurant that he owns, said he plans to petition the California Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling.

Earlier this week, Ferrer pointed to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that the rate of COVID-19 deaths slowed in counties where states required masks, and sped up in counties where states allowed on-site restaurant dining.

“That’s something that we’ll need to take into account as we begin more reopenings in our restaurants,” she said.

Counties that reach the red tier — still the second strictest of California’s four-category, color-coded reopening blueprint — can allow indoor restaurant dining and movie theaters to reopen at 25% capacity or up to 100 people, whichever is less. Indoor gyms and dance and yoga studios can open at 10% capacity. Museums, zoos and aquariums can open indoor activities at 25% capacity, and nonessential stores and libraries can open at 50% capacity, up from 25%.

The red tier, however, still keeps a number of venues closed, such as convention centers; bars, breweries and distilleries where no meals are provided; indoor swimming pools; indoor entertainment areas such as bowling alleys, escape rooms and laser tag facilities; and indoor card rooms.

If L.A. County remains on the right path, Ferrer said entering the even more-lenient orange tier could become a realistic possibility in as soon as a few weeks.

“It’s not just putting out new guidance, it’s having everybody take to heart the need to still take a lot of protections so that we keep each other safe,” she said.