Restaurants struggle with latest outdoor dining ban

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By Juliet Bennett Rylah

Contributing Writer

HOLLYWOOD — As restaurants cease in-person dining due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, many of their owners are feeling a mix of confusion, frustration and uncertainty amid shifting regulations and unclear data eight months into the ongoing pandemic.

Restaurateurs in Hollywood and West Hollywood said that there’s little data indicating they are responsible for the spread of the coronavirus, compared to other gatherings, but that the county’s Safer-at-Home order, which went into effect Nov. 25, unfairly penalizes them, while allowing other businesses to stay open.

The order forced restaurants to shut down all in-person dining for at least three weeks. L.A. County restaurants may offer takeout and delivery, while breweries and wineries are allowed to continue retail operations.

Restaurant owners said that shutting down outdoor dining will make it harder for them to survive through the pandemic. West Hollywood’s E.P. & L.P. was forced to implement mass layoffs as a result of the closure.

It is just too big to fire up for a to-go style operation,” said owner Grant Smillie. “This comes just in time for the holidays.”

Data, however, wasn’t the deciding factor in shutting down restaurants, said county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer during a Nov. 30 media briefing. Instead, the decision had to do with limiting the amount of spaces where people could gather without wearing masks.

“If you don’t have your face covering on, there’s a much greater risk of transmission, both to workers and to the people at your table and people at other tables,” Ferrer said.

New COVID-19 cases were around 4,000 when the county announced the new order on Nov. 22. The new case total jumped to almost 9,000 by Dec. 4, with hospitalizations and deaths rising as well.

Restaurants were first ordered to close down in-person dining in March in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. After “flattening the curve” during the spring, the county allowed theoe establishments to reopen for in-person outdoor dining with cities like Los Angeles and West Hollywood fast-tracking permits to place tables on sidewalks and in parking lots and alleys.

Indoor dining was also allowed for a short time, until a surge in COVID-19 cases in June caused the county to order dining rooms to close again.

For restauranteurs caught in the middle, the back and forth has been hard to manage.

Francesco Zimone at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele said he reopened the restaurant’s spacious patio to diners in June with temperature checks, mandatory masks and social distancing.

Zimone and his team navigated unexpected challenges, like cooks being unable to taste test anything they were making while wearing masks in the kitchen. Overall though, the patio was bringing in customers during a difficult time.

“We were seeing about 300 guests per day, most returning clientele,” Zimone said. “We were very happy, very safe. We provided a little bit of a community, a safe haven for our patrons who at this point have become very close friends.”

Now that his patio is closed again, Zimone is trying to stay positive and come up with new ways to stay open and keep his staff employed.

The restaurant will offer takeout and delivery of its menu, as well as grocery and pantry items that customers can order through the restaurant’s website. A customer who orders $100 worth of groceries will a free pizza. In the next few weeks, Zimone also will launch a new food truck outside the brick-and-mortar restaurant.

For Oaxacan restaurant Madre, the constant changes have also been difficult. Madre has locations in Torrance and Palms and recently opened a third restaurant and mezcal bar in West Hollywood. Owner Ivan Vasquez said that after the first shutdown in March, he turned a planned speakeasy into a takeout station. He moved forward with outdoor dining in early November.

“[We invested] thousands of dollars in supplies such as heaters, tents, shield dividers, grass, plants, and lighting, plus contractor costs,” Vasquez said. “We hired 25 employees and we were motivated and mentally ready to survive with outdoor dining until probably May.”

Now, however, he’s had no choice but to lay off 80% of his staff. Madre opened for takeout only Nov. 27, but “it was the lowest sales in the history of our restaurants.”

“After this shutdown, many restaurants won’t make it and re-opening the restaurants with employees laid off for more than three weeks will be almost impossible. I’m completely disappointed about this decision.”

While E.P. & L.P was forced to lay off its staff, Grant Smillie’s other establishment, Strings of Life, which opened in the midst of the pandemic in June, will continue to offer takeout for the time being.

Smillie said the recent shutdown is the most stressful part of the pandemic yet.

“We’ve done the dance that everyone else has done. We pivoted, adopted, incorporated all [personal protective equipment] and safety protocols and made the best of it,” he said, “If I had to sum up how I feel today it’s pretty easy. I’m exhausted. We will push on, but unlike the last forced closure and subsequent stimulus, this one feels like we’re on a tightrope without a safety net.”

Wally Moran, general manager of Wood & Vine, echoed the lack of a safety net.

“Restaurants in Hollywood are only surviving because of the eviction moratorium and PPP, which most have or are about to exhaust,” Moran said. “This could be a death knell because restaurants will be closed for three weeks, they no longer have PPP funds, and we’re running out of time. Landlords are getting grumpy. And even the landlords that can’t evict us, at the end of this, an enormous bill will come due that many restaurants can’t maintain.”

Wood & Vine had been preparing for booming business last March with the planned opening of “Hamilton” at the nearby Pantages Theatre. But “Hamilton’s” opening never came, and now without foot traffic from theater and concert venues and tourists, Hollywood restaurants are struggling.

The restaurant chose not to pivot to delivery and takeout, and backed off of reopening its patio in the summer, due to protests in the area and surging cases. Moran is hoping he can hold out until the Pantages reopens in April, if that still happens.

Moran said that he and other restaurateurs would be happy to close if the data indicated they need to, but right now, they are left wanting more concrete evidence about the spread of COVID-19 in restaurants. He hopes the county will include restaurant owners or managers in future discussions.

“We’re solutions people,” he said. “We open against all odds. We’re the people you actually want to be talking to because one of us will have an idea that no one thought of,” he said.

Juliet Bennett Rylah is a freelance reporter who covers Hollywood and West Hollywood. She can be reached at jbrylah@gmail.com.