Local restaurants are eager to welcome diners back to outdoor spaces this week but customers that return will see some differences in the experience.
Due to the recent decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations Los Angeles County lifted restrictions this week allowing restaurants and other food providers to resume service via outdoor dining in addition to delivery, drive thru, and carry out service, or in the case of wineries, to offer outdoor wine tastings with modifications.
“I was surprised since our current numbers are no better than the ones prior to being shut down in November,” said Joel Dixon, Rustic Canyon Family’s Chief Operating Officer “The county stressed the importance of having open ICU occupancy prior to our November shutdown. Those were the numbers and metrics they were managing to. To reopen with the ICUs still at capacity is concerning. It causes a lot of confusion around why and how the county is making its decisions.”
Dixon said his restaurants are in the process of reopening and adapting to the new guidelines.
“We are fortunate to already have our outdoor dining spaces built out. The biggest cost in reopening is bring our staff back off their Mandatory Leave of Absence,” he said. “It takes hours of the managers time to interact with the staff to arrange their schedule, have them get tested etc. The employees also have to train in any menu and operational updates prior to reopening. It costs thousands of dollars in labor each time we close and reopen. We also have lost countless staff throughout this process and the cost of losing an employee runs high.”
While Dixon is excited for the restaurants to get back to seeing their regular customers, he said the whiplash opening and closing doesn’t breed confidence in officials.
“There is a lot of concern around how the county officials are making the decisions they are making since it’s not evidence based,” he said. “LA County has been the strictest around stay at home orders and the continued closing and reopening of businesses. If you look at the data, closing outdoor dining didn’t do anything to prevent or slow a surge. County officials are making decisions based on their feelings, which is resulting in a lot of businesses closing and a rise in unemployment.”
Scott Francis, Santa Monica Brew Works Co-Founder, President & CEO said he was excited to hear he could reopen the company’s outdoor beer garden and the business.
He said the business is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst when it comes to long-term plans.
“Even though the two go hand-in-hand, we are more concerned about eliminating COVID than opening up our Tasting Room,” he said. “We are struggling along with all breweries in the Los Angeles area. Most of us have been able to keep going by relying on company rainy day savings, participating in government financial programs, and by pivoting our sales channels.”
The brewery usually sells significant amounts of beer to other restaurants for their in-house diners and Francis said he hoped the current rules were a step in the right direction.
“It is important for the State, County, and City to continue to allow for expanded outdoor dining for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Assuming that we will be able to open indoor dining by the end of the year, we will still need our expanded outdoor spaces to be able to safely serve up to our original, pre-pandemic, occupancy. It’s important for the city and the ABC to continue to allow us to serve alcohol for customer pick-up and delivery. If the state and local governments work with the restaurants, it will be a promising year for everyone.”
Customers who do seek out an alfresco meal this weekend will see a few changes to the protocols.
Customers are required to wear a mask whenever a server approaches a table, whenever they leave a table and to keep a mask on until food arrives at the table. Customers are also required to wash and sanitize their hands.
The establishments are required to have employees wear both face coverings and face shields, seat only single households at a table (with a six person maximum), keep tables at least eight feet apart and all television screens must be removed from the dining areas.
On Friday, county officials said the removal of TV’s is designed to discourage diners from lingering and specifically to prevent Superbowl parties from getting out of hand. Officials said while dining is reopening, continued adherence to basic safety measures is essential to keeping cases down.
Officials said there are still risks associated with outdoor dining and outlined several tiers for safe eating. The lowest risk activities are drive-through, take-out and pickup. Outdoor dining with reduced capacity is more risky and indoor dining (even with reduced capacity) and outdoor dining without reduced capacity carry even more risk. The highest risk activity would be a return to pre-Covid indoor dining with crowded spaces.