August 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

L.A. County resumes outdoor dining after COVID closures

For the first time in more than two months, cooped-up Angelenos can now grab a bite to eat at one of the region’s restaurants — and stay awhile to savor it.

Los Angeles County officially lifted its ban on outdoor dining Friday, removing the proverbial padlock from restaurant patios following a lengthy public health closure.

The move represents not just a desperately needed boost for the county’s hospitality industry — which has been pummeled for months by closures and restrictions meant to thwart transmission of the coronavirus — but the relaxation of what proved to be one of the more controversial rules the county has put in place throughout the course of the pandemic.

Just as important, however, is what officials say the decision doesn’t represent: an imminent end to the COVID-19 crisis, or a sign that residents can cast aside the practices and protocols meant to stymie the spread of the deadly virus.

“Our numbers in no area have dropped to where they were prior to the surge,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said this week. “And there is, in fact, the worry, as there has been in the past, that when you do any reopenings, you create more opportunities for people to intermingle, and many people read this as, ‘We don’t have a big problem anymore.’ And that will not work for us.”

Still, L.A. County has seen significant improvement across virtually all of its coronavirus metrics over the last few weeks — leading to growing optimism that the region is finally putting the worst wave of the pandemic behind it.

“We are on the decline. I feel comfortable saying, at this moment, that we’re out of the surge,” Ferrer told the L.A. City Council on Wednesday.

Lifting the ban on outdoor dining is one of the clearest signs yet that the county is heading in a more positive direction. L.A. County health officials originally suspended the offering in late November amid ballooning numbers of new coronavirus infections.

Shortly after, California handed down a new regional stay-at-home order covering all of Southern California, which widened the outdoor dining prohibition and imposed a slew of other restrictions.

With conditions improving, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that those orders would be canceled statewide. Many restaurants in affected areas were able to reopen for outdoor dining earlier this week, but L.A. County held off — with officials saying they wanted to craft additional safety measures.

In the weeks since the outdoor dining ban went into place, some critics demanded to see the data justifying it and questioned whether its benefits justified the economic pain restaurants would suffer.

County health officials, however, have said the danger of coronavirus transmission is heightened during any activity when people are spending extended periods of time in close proximity with those outside their homes while not wearing masks.

“We have a lot of concern because that’s a place where people will be taking off their face coverings,” Ferrer said of outdoor dining. “They’re often there with people that may not be from their households, and there are workers that need extra protection.”

Along with restaurants, L.A. County breweries may also reopen for outdoor dining, and wineries can offer outdoor tastings.

Under new county rules, outdoor dining and wine service seating must be limited to 50% capacity, with tables positioned at least eight feet apart.

Outdoor seating also will be limited to no more than six people per table — and everyone sitting together must be from the same household, the health order mandates.

In a nod to concerns surrounding the Super Bowl and other sporting events that could keep audiences around for extended periods, the order also stipulates that “televisions or other screens that broadcast programming must remain off until further notice.”

Recent improvements, though undoubtedly welcome, bely the magnitude of the latest surge.

In mid-November, county health officials warned they would implement the outdoor dining ban if the five-day average of new coronavirus cases hit 4,000, or if hospitalizations topped 1,750 per day.

Those thresholds seemed almost unthinkable at the time, as they would have represented a return to the numbers of summer’s virulent wave.

Now, however, getting cases and hospitalizations to those once-threatening levels would represent significant progress. Over the last five days, the county has averaged more than 6,500 new daily coronavirus cases, according to data compiled by The Times.

That has tumbled significantly from a few weeks ago but is still higher than any level seen before the latest surge.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are also moving downward at a steady clip, falling 24% countywide over the last two weeks. However, the number of Angelenos hospitalized for COVID-19 Wednesday — 5,855 — is still more than twice as high as the summit of the summer surge.

Officials acknowledge the wider reopening of the economy could imperil progress. The coronavirus is a communicable disease and can spread widely and quickly as people more regularly come into contact with one another without taking precautions, such as wearing face coverings or keeping physical distance.

“We just don’t have any leeway here to make a lot of mistakes,” Ferrer said this week. “We have to really stay very focused on doing this right.”