On November 22, Los Angeles became the only county in America this winter to ban outdoor dining.
The order, which will last a minimum of three weeks, will be financially devastating for many restaurants and could lead would-be diners to congregate in venues that are less safe.
There's no evidence that outdoor dining has contributed to the spread of COVID-19, nor has indoor dining been particularly risky. Los Angeles County public health data identifies 16 restaurants where the virus was spread, but this occurred among employees and not customers. Restaurants don't even make the county's top five list of COVID-19 exposure sites. The county has found that most restaurants comply with its health orders, and cases fell throughout the summer even while outdoor dining was permitted.
"I personally feel like we're being punished," says Kat Turner, a chef and partner at Highly Likely cafe in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles.
"They've shut us without saying, 'Hey, here's a solution…This is how we're going to help you get through this period,'" says David Combes, the executive director of Botanical Hospitality Group. The company owns two restaurants in West Hollywood, including E.P. & L.P., which was forced to shift to outdoor rooftop dining.
Combes says he and his partners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure the restaurant can provide a safe and compliant outdoor dining experience. They haven't turned a profit since it reopened.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued the order the weekend before Thanksgiving, citing a 108 percent increase in cases and rising hospitalizations.
"Even if you're outdoors, gathering with people you do not live with can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19," said the county's public health director, Barbara Ferrer. Though she estimates from the county's contact tracing efforts that 10 to 15 percent of COVID-19 transmissions are linked to "dining experiences," she hasn't clarified how many of those transmissions were attributed to outdoor dining at restaurants and declined to provide the underlying data when quizzed by reporters at a recent press conference.
Combes believes that restaurants are paying the price for the county's lack of comprehensive contact tracing and testing.
"It feels like we are being disadvantaged by a lack of process from L.A. County," says Combes. "And now…for political optics…the first thing we're going to do is we're going to shut down restaurants and bars."
Turner worries that shutting down outdoor dining will only push people indoors to less safe settings.
"It's stupid. I think people are still gonna want to get together. And now they're going to do it inside at other people's homes instead of meeting outside at a restaurant to have dinner," says Turner.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to uphold the health department's order. The California Restaurant Association has already filed suit against the county.
Turner says she worries about the unintended consequences of an indefinite shutdown of one of the only relatively safe places in Los Angeles where people can gather.
"I think it's completely irresponsible to shut down outdoor dining. What we have here is good for the community, and it's good for the economy, and it's good for our staff, and we're doing it safely," says Turner.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller.
Photo credits: Sarah Reingewirtz/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Music credits: "Fused," "It Was Time We Let Go," and "Like We Used To" by Stanley Gurvich.