County orders restaurants to quit dine-in service

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Spurred by a weeklong spike in COVID-19 cases, Los Angeles County health officials plan to again prohibit in-person restaurant dining this week, but at least one county supervisor is opposing the move, saying it unduly punishes eateries for the virus surge and threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The county Department of Public Health announced Nov. 22 that in-person dining would be halted at 10 p.m. Nov. 25 and continuing for three weeks.

The move came in response to a surge that has now seen new daily COVID-19 cases average more than 4,000 over the past five days.

The revised public health order will restrict restaurants, breweries and wineries to take-out, drive-through and delivery services.

Officials warned of the possibility of such measures last week, as new cases and hospitalizations surged in Los Angeles County and statewide. They follow a statewide “soft curfew” that went into effect Nov. 21 prohibiting all “nonessential work, movement and gatherings” between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., continuing until the morning of Dec. 21.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she would oppose the county health order during a Board of Supervisors meeting Nov.24, citing estimates by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation that approximately 700,000 food industry jobs could be lost, with 75% of those losses affecting workers earning $50,000 or less.

These proposed measures by the Department of Public Health will further devastate local businesses and employees who have been asked to shoulder an unfair burden this year,” Barger said in a statement.

Barger said that only 10-15% of positive COVID-19 cases are related to dining out with someone who tested positive, while more than half are connected to private social gatherings. Closing outdoor dining — where compliance with health orders is high — could also create the unintended consequence of prompting more private gatherings, she said.

Businesses have made incredible sacrifices to align with safety protocols to remain open in order to pay their bills and feed their families,” Barger said. “Increased case counts are not coming from businesses reopening, but from large gatherings where people aren’t wearing masks. We aren’t helpless in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and can protect ourselves and our neighbors by maintaining physical distancing and wearing face coverings.”

Barger’s staff said she planned to address the matter during the board’s discussion on public health orders. It was not immediately clear whether she would have support among her colleagues if she chose to bring a motion to revise the health order.

One other board member, Janice Hahn, expressed concern about the in-person dining ban.

While I know our case counts are growing rapidly, I would have rather discussed this measure openly during our Board of Supervisors meeting so that the public could understand the rationale behind it,” Hahn wrote on her Twitter page Nov. 22. “Some of these restaurants are barely hanging on. I hope this isn’t the last nail in their coffins. I wish we could have figured out a way to put in more restrictions rather than completely shutting down dining.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 2,718 new cases of COVID-19 and nine additional deaths Nov. 22, bringing the county’s totals to 364,520 cases and 7,438 fatalities. The previous three days had each seen more than 4,000 cases reported, including a single-day record of 5,031 cases Nov. 19.

The five-day average of more than 4,000 cases prompted the ban on in-person dining, following thresholds released last week by county health officials.

If the five-day average of cases grows to 4,500 or more or hospitalizations are more than 2,000 per day, a targeted safer at home order will be issued for three weeks, according to the health department said. That order would amount to a stay-at-home order like the one issued at the start of the pandemic, allowing only essential and emergency workers and those securing essential services to leave their homes.

The number of county residents hospitalized with the virus increased from 1,391 Nov. 21 to 1,401 Nov. 22, with 26% in intensive care. That’s more than double the daily number in the beginning of October, when it was under 700.

The department reminded everyone to stay home as much as possible for the next two to three weeks to change the trajectory of surging cases and save lives, and repeated its advice that people not travel for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

“The persistent high number of cases requires additional safety measures that limit mixing in settings where people are not wearing masks,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “We hope individuals continue to support restaurants, breweries and wineries by ordering for take-out or delivery. We also fervently hope every L.A. County resident supports all our businesses by following the public health directives that we know work to slow spread. Unfortunately, if our cases and hospitalizations continue to increase, we will need to issue further restrictions to protect our health care system and prevent more deaths.”

The county implemented other restrictions Nov. 20 that limited indoor “nonessential” businesses such as retail stores, offices and personal care services to 25% occupancy; limit outdoor cardrooms, miniature golf sites, go-kart tracks and batting cages to 50% of maximum outdoor capacity; mandate advance appointments for customers at personal-care businesses and barred services that require customers to remove their face masks; and restricted outdoor gatherings to no more than 15 people from a maximum of three households.

The county previously issued guidance limiting gatherings to three households, but there was no numerical limit on attendees.

The state imposed a soft curfew starting Nov. 21, barring non-essential gatherings and movements between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary, said the state’s order was not a hard curfew, indicating that people can still go outside of their homes, but they just shouldn’t gather with others. He noted that he still plans to take his dog on its normal 11 p.m. walk.

Asked about how restrictions will be enforced — in light of Southern California sheriffs stating they won’t be actively cracking down on health order violations — Ferrer said last week the county isn’t relying on law enforcement, but rather hoping residents will take the urgency to heart.

We really appreciate that the best enforcement is voluntary compliance,” she said. “We’ve all done really well when we’ve set for ourselves a goal as a community and gotten behind it. I can’t think of anybody at this point who’s going to argue with the fact that we need to take some action to slow the spread, because this level of acceleration threatens our health care system.

And that threatens care for every single person in this county — for people who have a heart attack, for people who need emergency surgery, for people who need scheduled surgery, for people who are victims of car accidents or trauma.”

Ferrer also noted that the surge in cases is not just the result of increased testing. She said the county’s rising rate of positive tests shows that the virus is spreading more rapidly. The county’s seven-day average daily positivity rate among those tested for the virus was 3.9% on Nov. 1, but it rose to 5.1% by Nov. 8 and stood at 7.1% as of Nov. 21.