California governor Gavin Newsom has announced an immediate shutdown of indoor dining rooms and all tasting rooms, breweries, and bars across the entire state. Previously, Newsom had called for those closures only for counties that fell onto the state’s watch list of areas with an increasing rate of spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We are announcing additional statewide actions,” Newsom said in his still-ongoing public event, saying that the increased closures were “a consequence of positivity rate and increased hospitalizations” for COVID-19. The news means that Los Angeles County and nearby Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties can still permit outdoor-only restaurant dining, as well as takeout and delivery. Further north, Alameda County — home to Oakland and Berkeley — recently rescinded its ability to even allow restaurants to serve outdoors. Gyms, indoor services like malls, and beauty salons and hair cutting facilities are also closed across those counties on the governor’s watch list.
The reversal of fortune for restaurant owners comes after weeks of rapidly escalating coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County and beyond, including nearby Riverside and Ventura counties. Intensive care unit hospital beds there are currently operating at or above maximum capacity, with little hope of coronavirus case numbers receding any time soon. California has now confirmed more than 325,000 coronavirus cases, and registered 7,000 deaths.
In LA County, the state’s seven-day average positivity rate jumped to 11.6 percent last week, in part because of a swift reopening of several sectors of the economy over the past several weeks. The numbers were worse in Orange County, where the positive test rate last week was 14.2 percent.
Health officials have warned for weeks about an increase in community spread that began around Memorial Day as businesses began to reopen as part of Newsom’s phased-in approach, starting with limited dining and the opening of gyms and other recreational facilities, and shows no signs of slowing down. “We’ve had a lot of people disregard the very practices that allowed us to slow the spread,” LA County public health officer Dr. Barbara Ferrer said last Monday. “Our inability to follow the most basic infection control and distancing directives leads to serious illness, and even the death of the people we love.”
Today’s news is just the latest turn in California’s see-sawing fight against COVID-19. Restaurants were first mandated to close their doors to dine-in customers back on March 15 locally (and March 17 state-wide), as were bars and nightlife venues. Slowly the state’s liquor board worked to permit things like to-go cocktails, even allowing bars to reopen as long as they partnered with licensed food vendors like a next-door restaurant or food truck to sell food items along with alcohol.
In late May, following restaurant reopenings elsewhere in places like Orange and Ventura County, Newsom and Los Angeles County public health officials announced a surprise reopening of dining rooms that very night — despite a lack of available guidance for things like personal protective equipment for staff and social distancing inside of dining rooms. That was quickly followed by an ad hoc program known as LA Al Fresco, spearheaded by mayor Eric Garcetti, that promoted no-cost permits for restaurants to expand outdoor seating into public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots.
The reopening of indoor dining and of bars (on June 19) would end up being short-lived, as Newsom forced them to close up again on June 28, followed by the removal of all indoor restaurant dining in Los Angeles and surrounding counties on July 1. San Francisco, meanwhile, has scrapped plans entirely to more broadly reopen restaurants and bars, saying that a mid-July timeline was no longer feasible.
Health officials and inspectors had been trying hard to force health and safety guideline compliance on businesses across the county, particularly restaurants. In late May, health officials reported that nearly half of all restaurants had not been fully in compliance with the mandated protocols, causing county officials to consider punitive punishments, including fines, for those who would not come into compliance. More recently, inspectors found that roughly 99 percent of restaurants visited had eventually come into compliance.