California Gov. Gavin Newsom is widely expected to roll back the state’s current regional stay-at-home orders at noon today, returning the state’s 58 counties to the previous color-coded, multi-tiered system for determining the severity of lockdowns during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While government officials have yet to make an announcement, it’s likely that on-site, outdoor dining will immediately return for most — if not all — of the 11-county Southern California region.
Last night, the California Restaurant Association sent an email out to members that reads in part: “Senior officials in the Newsom administration informed us that the Governor will announce tomorrow that the stay-at-home order will be lifted in all regions of the state.” Eater has obtained a copy of the email from a restaurateur.
Today’s expected announcement would put Los Angeles and many other counties back into the “widespread,” or purple tier, the highest level of a multi-tiered system that was first enacted back in August. That move would, for most counties in Southern California, immediately allow for the resumption of on-site outdoor dining, with the usual coronavirus protocols in place (social distancing, mandatory mask and face shield wearing by serving staff, etc.) No more need for faux protest spaces or parklet workarounds in front of businesses, and no more pushback from businesses like Tinhorn Flats and Long Beach’s Restauration who openly flouted public health orders for months.
There is one pretty big catch, though: Throughout the pandemic, local public health officials have always been able to enact stricter lockdown measures that would be considered additive to any state-level directive. This has happened often in Los Angeles, where the countywide LA Department of Public Health and the LA County Board of Supervisors collectively shut down on-site outdoor dining weeks before the state-level regional mandate to do so, meaning operators in most of LA County had to shift back to takeout and delivery only, well before state officials demanded it (while being forced to adjust staff levels, menus, hours, and all the rest, basically on the fly). Orange County and other areas (including Pasadena, which has its own public health department) continued to allow on-site dining after LA County’s localized closure decision, at least until Newsom’s new regional plan took effect in early December.
All that is to say, Los Angeles County specifically may not return to on-site outdoor dining today, even if nearby areas like Orange, Ventura, and Riverside counties do, because of the Board of Supervisors decision to close outdoor dining in late November 2020. That contentious 3-2 vote by the supervisors, and the subsequent modification of the public health order by the LA Department of Public Health, became the subject of a lawsuit that is still winding its way through the local courts, with another hearing slated for February. The county’s case for keeping outdoor dining closed was originally overturned by a judge who called the decision “arbitrary,” but was later upheld on appeal. More than likely, county public officials will hold a press conference today in the early afternoon to help clarify things, though historically speaking public officials have not been great about giving small business owners much (if any) heads up on such changes.
So how did LA County get here in the first place? Newsom’s previous public health order modification took effect in late November as COVID-19 cases began to sharply rise across much of the state. The plan was to lump counties together into regions that could ostensibly share intensive care unit bed capacity as needed, with more and more people being hospitalized for COVID-19 then than at any time in the pandemic. Once a region fell below 15 percent ICU bed capacity, that region would enter a stringent lockdown that greatly reduced capacity (but did not outright close) at many retail sites, stopped on-site outdoor dining, and limited travel and hotel stays; Southern California has been living under those guidelines since early December.
Currently, Los Angeles County remains an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, averaging more than six deaths an hour from COVID-19, and with cases and hospitalization rates triple what they were during the summer. Regionally, ICU bed capacity is less than two percent, well below the previous 15 percent threshold. However, reporter Doug Sovern of KCBS Radio reports that Newsom’s office will likely show ICU bed capacity projections that show the Southern California region, as well as all the others, is expected to climb above 15 percent over the next four weeks. The formal data used by state officials is expected to be released today at noon.
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to be learned about the specifics of Newsom and LA County’s plan today, but for now it seems as though many restaurants within Southern California will at least be able to accept on-site outdoor dining as soon as this afternoon — and, of course, just in time for a rainy week ahead.