76.7 F
San Fernando
Thursday, May 19, 2022

Business Gets Vocal on Outdoor Dining Ban

San Fernando Valley restaurants are reeling after L.A. County health officials ordered a temporary prohibition on outdoor dining, a decision that drew strong criticism from business and public policy leaders.“There are no positives to this inarguably bad decision,” Stuart Waldman, president of Van Nuys-based Valley Industry & Commerce Association, said in a statement.The on-site dining restriction came ahead of Thanksgiving as COVID-19 cases spiked to record highs in the county and across the United States. Since Nov. 25 at 10 p.m., restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars have been limited to take-out, delivery and drive-through orders. The restriction will last at least three weeks after its enactment.The Public Health Department released a statement explaining its decision as an effort to “reduce the possibility for crowding and the potential for exposures in settings where people are not wearing their face coverings.”Decision’s backlashThe shutdown has angered a restaurant sector already in financial distress after eight months of inconsistent regulations and reduced sales.“I’m devastated,” said Karen Ross, owner of Tallyrand restaurant in Burbank. “We’re going to go from doing 65 percent of our sales pre-COVID-19 – what we’ve been doing recently – back to 25 or 30 percent.”Ross said the restriction forced her to temporarily furlough 24 of her staff, many of whom have been on the restaurant’s payroll for over a decade, right before the holidays.She added the mixed messaging around the safety of outdoor dining had led her to make investments that the new regulation renders worthless.“You invest in the heaters, the (propane) tanks, all the PPE, keeping everybody safe, doing our thing and then – bam – it all gets pulled out from underneath us just weeks after we get it all going,” she said.Small businesses weren’t the only ones to spend extra.Phase 2 of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Al Fresco” dining program took $750,000 from the Department of Transportation’s budget to establish outdoor dining zones along retail- and restaurant-heavy motorways, including Magnolia Boulevard in the North Hollywood Arts District and San Fernando Boulevard in Burbank.That investment redirected traffic by blocking off city street lanes with cement barricades and signage, allowing a total of 50 restaurants citywide to serve customers in the middle of the street.L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who oversees District 2, which includes North Hollywood, said in an email to the Business Journal in September the Al Fresco zones could be a “potential lifesaver” for some restaurants.

Now, the messaging has flipped to paint outdoor dining as a potential factor in the recent coronavirus surge.Ross said she feels like restaurants are being unfairly scapegoated, especially when Newsom himself is attending private parties at swanky indoor restaurants like The French Laundry in Yountville.

“The restaurant industry is becoming the fall guy for the numbers going up,” she said.The Independent Hospitality Coalition in Los Angeles, which represents restaurants and their employees, posited Halloween parties and other private holiday gatherings are to blame for the spike.“By banning all outdoor dining during these colder winter months, people will instead host more indoor parties, which will undoubtedly lead to more infections,” the organization said in a statement.In addition to the business restrictions, L.A. County officials enacted a “Safer at Home” order late last month as the region’s five-day average of new cases peaked at 4,751, one of the highest totals since the start of the pandemic.Political pushbackTwo county officials have voiced their opposition to the outdoor dining restriction. One of them is Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Valley neighborhoods and is chair of the Board of Supervisors.“These proposed measures by the Department of Public Health will further devastate local businesses and employees who have been asked to shoulder an unfair burden this year,” Barger said in a statement. “Businesses throughout the county have invested thousands of dollars to ensure safety for their employees and customers only to be punished for the recent surge they have done everything in their power to prevent.”Along with Barger, Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents parts of South Los Angeles, publicly opposed the restriction. The two co-authored a motion to overturn the Public Health mandate and allow a continuation of outdoor on-site service at 50 percent capacity, but Supervisors Hilda Solis, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl voted it down in a meeting Nov. 24.After the motion failed, Hahn said in a statement: “It would be one thing if we had a new stimulus from the federal government so that we could help the restaurants and the people losing their paychecks – but we don’t. I don’t think we have the data to prove that outdoor dining is driving the recent surge in cases, nor do we have the data to assure us that this action will turn our case numbers around.”A lack of data confirming the danger of outdoor dining is a unifying element of people’s frustration with the restriction. Tujunga-based restaurant consultant Liz Thompson expressed the same sentiment in an interview with the Business Journal.“Where are the hard facts that outdoor dining is creating the surge?” she asked.

“If you’re doing it the way they’ve asked you to do it with all sides open, where is the data for that?” Tallyrand owner Ross echoed, noting that some outdoor dining setups have devolved into near-indoor experiences that defeat the entire purpose, with three or four closed walls limiting ventilation.

County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer said that low compliance among restaurants could be contributing to an increased rate of virus transmission. Compliance checks conducted by her office found that around 20 percent of the 726 restaurants they visited in November were out of compliance with the health order’s physical distancing requirements.

If that percentage is consistent across all of L.A. County, it would represent “more than 6,000 sites, which could easily translate to more than 300,000 people at increased risk of exposure if each of those sites had 50 people in them,” Ferrer said in a media statement explaining the rationale behind the restriction.More closures?VICA’s Waldman said restaurants won’t be able to survive on take-out alone. He said it is “unfortunate the board moved to kill Los Angeles County businesses and the thousands of jobs they provide.”It’s true many restaurants in L.A. and around the country couldn’t survive the first round of on-site restrictions earlier this year.On Sept. 14, the National Restaurant Association trade group released a survey that predicted nearly 100,000 restaurants will have closed permanently by the end of 2020.And while forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury and Disaster Loan fund helped keep some restaurants afloat for a while, federal aid has since evaporated.

The National Restaurant Association survey found 40 percent of respondents think its “unlikely” they’ll still be in business six months from now if they don’t receive additional help.According to Waldman, “Shutting down dine-in options will worsen our local economy, put people out of their jobs right before the holidays and lead to more COVID-19 cases as people continue to gather in even more unsafe situations.”Thompson, the consultant, said she expects to see another wave of restaurant closures starting in “the next couple of weeks” if no federal funding comes through.“Losses are so much greater for restaurants than other businesses,” she added.For Thompson, the state’s handling of restaurant industry restrictions killed a project before it even got off the ground.

This spring, she was working with a business partner to open a chef-driven takeout- and delivery-only barbeque restaurant in the Valley. But as the pandemic worsened, the other party decided California’s government hadn’t done enough to help the restaurant industry.

“The person decided that he doesn’t want to open a business in the state of California and no longer wants to live in California. He’s moving to Arizona and will open his restaurant there,” Thompson said. “He kept watching the political climate and seeing how restaurants are being hit so unfairly across the board with no support. He was like, ‘Why should I open a restaurant in a state that’s just working on closing them down?’”To shore up some much-needed financial support for the restaurant industry, Barger has asked L.A. County to repurpose $10 million in CARES Act funding to create a grant program for restaurants, breweries and wineries impacted by the outdoor restriction.“We asked businesses to invest substantial resources to ensure safety, only to force them to close,” Barger said. “Small businesses cannot withstand these constant changes and deserve better.”

Featured Articles

Related Articles