By Terry Miller
It is the worst of times, it was the epoch of incredulity, to paraphrase the Charles Dickens classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities.” The restaurant industry was already hurting and now Los Angeles County eateries have been hit with more restrictions — including a ban on outdoor dining — than many can handle in 2020. It would not be an understatement to say this is, in fact, the winter of despair.
Pasadena, however, is exempt from this order as they maintain their own health department, independent of county restrictions. The state could override Pasadena Public Health Department’s orders, according to Lisa Derderian, Pasadena public information officer.
The recent closures and restrictions came after many restaurants had already heavily invested in making their establishments as safe as possible.
Since the new order took effect, restaurants in the county have questioned why Pasadena is immune from the edict and some local restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are defying it.
Dylan Feik, Monrovia city manager, sent out an update on Monday saying: “The impacts of the closures have made it very difficult for small businesses across L.A. County, including businesses in Monrovia.”
Feik points out that according to public health data, “between 10–15 percent of positive cases were reported from dining out with someone who tested positive, while more than 50 percent were reported from being at a private social gathering with someone who tested positive.” According to Feik city officials are concerned “that by closing restaurants, the Order will adversely incentivize residents to dine together, indoors, and without any safety precautions in place,” a sentiment that has been echoed by Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
“Finally, as reported by the Department of Public Health, the City of Monrovia had 515 cases and 33 deaths over the course of the first four (4) months of the pandemic,” Feik continued. “Now, nearly 4 months later, the totals have increased to 1,016 cases and 40 deaths. In Monrovia, the trends are actually trending downward over the past 4 months with deaths significantly reduced.”
On Tuesday, he had empathetic thoughts on the restaurant ban:
“Since the Health Order began allowing outdoor dining, the city spent considerable time and energy trying to support our restaurants. Our Old Town Advisory Board made quick work of expanding outdoor dining and closing off a section of Myrtle on Fridays (and recently, Saturdays too). Our staff was issuing outdoor dining encroachment permits at no cost and even providing city equipment for barricades and enclosures.
“Not long after, my office and councilmembers began receiving phone calls from concerned business owners as Public Health Department staff were conducting what seemed to be targeted code enforcement activities along Myrtle. Business owners were sharing examples of unequal treatment/application of the code enforcement and some pointing to neighboring cities which had little or zero code enforcement going on. I would not characterize restaurants as ‘defying the order’ but rather struggling to survive. I have heard countless stories of how the L.A. County Health Department provides guidance to a business, issues a notice to the business owner, and then shows up again with new guidance. Their frustration seems to stem from being tired of ‘moving targets’ in a world of such uncertainty.”
Monrovia Mayor Tom Adams told Beacon Media that he understands everyone’s frustrations. “Please understand that this is an order from the Los Angeles County Health Officer, an order for restaurants, it is not an order on the City of Monrovia,” said Adams. “The council is working through our elected representatives at the county level and also working with some of our surrounding cities and with the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments to see what our alternatives are.”
Scores of restaurateurs concur with that philosophy and are doing whatever they can to stay afloat.
Tuesday’s Monrovia City Council touched on alternatives to the county’s restrictions, including establishing an independent health department, which several cities, like Lancaster and West Covina, are considering. However, Mayor Adams said it was just a discussion and that the meeting was “not designed to remove [Monrovia] from the L.A. county health system but clearly something’s not right.”
The mayor went on to question the science guiding the closure of outdoor dining. “I know the L.A. County Board of Supervisors had a recent meeting and it was asked at that meeting if there was ever any evidence whatsoever that outdoor dining was causing the increase in COVID-19 cases and they said no.”
Some public comments incorrectly blamed the city, not the county for the restaurants’ closure of outdoor dining. “For God’s sake, please do something…” one business owner pleaded with the council.
Peggy Simonian owns Lucky Baldwins’ three locations — one is in Sierra Madre, which is under county orders and currently closed, and two are in Pasadena and are open for outside dining only.
“It feels like the authorities are punishing restaurant owners/workers and the entire chain of the workforce this effects for this uprise in numbers of the coronavirus. Thought should be given to the fact that the restaurants are highly sanitized, everyone is wearing masks/shields — we are sanitizing more than ever before — but by closing off outdoor dining this only encourages more people to meet inside their homes,” Simonian shared with Beacon Media.
“Shutting down restaurants is not easy and has many financial implications that no one realizes — i.e., produce/meat ordered in house, inventory that has already been bought but needs to be paid for, still. We lose money the moment we shut our doors in the amount of food we will have to throw away from spoilage,” she said.
County health officials have repeatedly said they will focus on education rather than enforcement, though continued non-compliance can lead to fines and closure, authorities say. However, “County health inspectors say that even with daily check-ins, they’re hitting less than 1 percent of all restaurants countywide per week, and that of those compliance checks they have done, 19 percent of restaurants are not properly following social-distancing guidelines,” according to reporting from Eater Los Angeles.
In Pasadena, several restaurants were told to shut down Friday for failing to comply with one or more health code orders. While two were allowed to reopen on Saturday night, two more were told to close Sunday.
“The most common violations were no face shields, dining tables not distanced, and protocols not completed,” said Derderian, adding that roughly 50 percent of restaurants were found to be compliant during the department’s first round of visits.
Since outdoor dining ended, L.A. County has shattered previously set records for daily hospitalizations and cases.