A Recipe for Trouble? Reversal of California Outdoor Dining Ban Has Heads Spinning

Outdoor dining is resuming in California under state and local orders issued last week — but with covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths still far higher than they were when the bans took effect, restaurant owners and workers are wary of reopening their patios and parking lots.

Los Angeles County’s outdoor dining ban began Nov. 25, and a statewide ban, part of a broader stay-at-home order, took effect Dec. 5. No clear data from contact tracing could justify outdoor dining bans, public health officials acknowledged.

New cases in California are down nearly 65% from last year’s peak on Dec. 15, but still high enough to prompt confusion about why Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed outdoor dining and other activities to resume.

As has frequently been the case during the pandemic, messaging is mixed regarding the safe way to return to outdoor dining. When California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly appeared in a video to explain the lifting of the ban, a slide alongside him said, “If you miss a friend, you can go out to eat outside at a restaurant together.”

But L.A. County’s new rules for outdoor dining restrict tables to people within a single household.

Some scientists think the policy whiplash erodes trust in health messaging.

“The original decision to close was not data-driven, and therefore the decision to reopen wasn’t data-driven,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California-San Francisco. “It looks like you’re not cleanly following numbers and making recommendations appropriately, and that can really confuse people.”

Measuring the impact of outdoor dining on covid transmission is difficult because the activity changes with the seasons, and it coincides with other activities that move from indoors to outdoors in nicer weather, said Aaron Yelowitz, a professor of economics at the University of Kentucky, who co-authored a nationwide analysis that measured the effects of the earliest shutdown orders on covid transmission.

Covid transmission in L.A. decreased within two weeks of the outdoor dining ban, a data point suggesting that the stop played a role in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

With conditions no better, or even worse, than they were in November, the new order “doesn’t make sense,” said Billy Silverman, owner of Salazar, a Mexican barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles.

The county department of health seemed to affirm Silverman’s observation on Friday, the first day L.A. restaurants could reopen for outdoor dining.

“Although some restrictions were just lifted, we’re still in a very dangerous period in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” said county health officer Dr. Muntu Davis. He noted on Friday that L.A. County had 7,112 new cases and 228 deaths, and that 5,855 people were hospitalized with the disease.

While much lower than in mid-January, the covid burden is far higher than it was on Nov. 22, the day the county announced the outdoor dining ban, when it reported a daily tally of 2,718 cases, nine deaths and 1,401 hospitalizations.

If the covid numbers don’t improve in coming weeks, Silverman said, he can’t justify reopening his 120-seat, mostly outdoor restaurant. Though completely closed for more than half a year and then operating at 50% capacity in the fall, the business has managed to stay afloat with the help of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.

Silverman tried to operate with only takeout and delivery when L.A. County instituted its outdoor dining ban, but he couldn’t break even on sales to cover the labor costs. Having laid off around 65 people in March, he furloughed his workers — a much smaller kitchen crew by then — a second time in early December.

“I’ve talked to a lot of staff members, and they don’t feel comfortable rushing back to a potentially hazardous situation,” Silverman said. “I’m not going to do that to them.”

Christian Albertson, co-owner of the Monk’s Kettle tavern in San Francisco, was also stunned by the reversal.

“I can’t wrap my head around it, especially when the vaccine is so close,” Albertson said. “It just feels crazy. It is absolutely insane that we’re opening right now.”

The slow, uneven vaccine distribution makes this a precarious moment, said Jennifer D. Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland school of public health. As the shots trickle out through the community, starting with the eldest and most vulnerable residents, younger service workers — many of whom live in multigenerational homes — could be put at risk if customers relax habits like mask-wearing and physical distancing, she said.

Still, Albertson plans to resume outdoor dining in mid-February, to coincide with California Craft Beer Week. He’s confident in the protocols his restaurant developed last year to keep staffers and customers safe in a 30-seat patio area. Revenue in 2020 was down 55% compared with 2019 at Monk’s Kettle; the business is being kept afloat with governmental loan programs.

“I’d much rather wait a month or more and then have everyone come back permanently,” he said. “Right now, it’s ‘Come back, and let’s see if we can get past the first couple of weeks before cases start going up again.’”

At the heart of the issue is the lack of data showing that outdoor restaurant dining has had a role in the spread of covid. The strongest research to date includes a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found covid-positive people were more than twice as likely to report eating at a restaurant two weeks before getting sick. A Stanford-led study found that restaurants operating at full capacity spread four times as many additional covid cases as the next-worst venue, indoor gyms. Neither of these studies differentiated between indoor and outdoor seating.

In the final few months of 2020, cases were rising rapidly in Los Angeles and throughout the state, however, and officials targeted outdoor dining in the absence of anything else they could regulate. With the state’s spotty contact-tracing efforts insufficient to connect outdoor dining to disease transmission, officials gave different explanations for the ban.

L.A. County’s department of public health director, Barbara Ferrer, said it was needed because outdoor dining required customers to take off their masks, raising the risk of transmission. Ghaly, the state official, said the ban had a broader aim. Transitioning to takeout and delivery “really has to do with the goal of trying to keep people at home, [and is] not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining,” he said Dec. 8.

“That was the frustrating part for us — that it was like a hunch,” said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, which represents about 22,000 restaurants in the state. “They had a hunch that this was probably not safe, and let’s just shut it down.”

Condie’s association won a lawsuit against the county to overturn the ban, but by then the state’s regional orders were in place. Since the orders restricted individuals from everything except work, essential errands and exercise, the group didn’t escalate its suit to the state level, as restaurants weren’t being singled out.

Restaurants, perhaps more than any other industry, have borne the brunt of back-and-forth pandemic restrictions. Up to 1 million Californian restaurant workers have been laid off or furloughed since the pandemic began, according to the California Restaurant Association, and 30% of the 396 restaurant owners the association surveyed said they were at risk of closing or downsizing.

In December, California’s leisure and hospitality sector lost 117,000 jobs, the largest sector lost in the state, and most of these positions were in food services.

The loss of so many restaurant positions has made the job market extremely competitive for laid-off workers, adding pressure to job searches.

Vincent Campillo, a 38-year-old bartender in Los Angeles, lost both his jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and has been living on unemployment benefits since. He began to pick up occasional fill-in shifts toward the end of 2020.

“It’s ridiculous that L.A. is opening right now,” Campillo said. “It blows my mind and I can’t understand it.”

Newsom’s announcement seemed to divide the city into haves and have-nots, he said. Customers are cheering a return to outdoor restaurant dining, but Campillo is filled with dread. While young and healthy, he joked that he didn’t know if he and covid would “get along,” and didn’t want to find out.

Yet Campillo said he would return to work if asked, to maintain the relationships and networks he needs to remain employed long term. He hopes to get a vaccine as soon as they are offered to food service workers.

“I don’t know why I should be put in that place just so that someone can have a glass of natural wine and a charcuterie plate,” Campillo said. “People who are desperately in need of an income have to be the ones to serve them and put themselves in harm’s way.”