After Newsom lifts state decree, 2 LA County supervisors swiftly urge reopening outdoor dining

Politics over health again? Get over it – health first or more people die needlessly!!!

When Gov. Gavin Newsom  lifted the wider stay-at-home orders Monday, Jan. 25, the state returned to a county-by-county approach to monitoring the coronavirus outbreak. That puts Los Angeles County — burdened with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the country — back into the “purple tier” indicating widespread transmission.

With decisions back in the hands of local leaders, the move could signal the reopening of outdoor dining, but it was unclear if changes were at hand.

The decision rests in the hands of the county’s public health officials — but, ultimately, with county supervisors, two of whom issued statements Monday in support of reopening outdoor dining immediately. Though public health officials may oppose easing such limits — citing the declining but still-alarming levels of hospitalizations — the board could overrule those concerns and respond to the pleas from restaurant owners and business associations.

While rules for other businesses may change only slightly, under the state guidelines for purple tier, counties can indeed allow outdoor dining. However, L.A. County chose to institute stricter rules in late November before the wider state order took effect in early December.

Pasadena, which operates its own health department, allowed outdoor dining then. Long Beach, also independent of the county health department, aligned with the county restrictions until the state took control. Neither city had issued any new orders as of Monday morning.

The ban on outdoor dining in L.A. County was challenged in court by the California Restaurant Association and a Los Angeles restaurant in November with a Superior Court Judge on Dec. 8 ruling against the county.

Judge James Chalfant said the county acted “arbitrarily” and couldn’t sufficiently show a rational for the decision to close outdoor dining stalls. The county needed to show a “risk-benefit analysis” for not allowing outdoor dining beyond just that it introduced a risk to transmission because patrons are unmasked.

The ruling came about a week after the California regional stay-at-home orders so the legal point became moot, however, it was unclear how this case could affect the next choice by L.A. County public health officials or whether they will have to meet this new standard set by the judge in order to maintain restrictions on outdoor dining.

Reacting to the news Monday morning, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she supported reopening outdoor dining.

“Now that Governor Newsom has lifted the statewide stay-at-home order, the question is what is L.A. County going to do?” Hahn said in a statement. “We should align ourselves with the state as much as possible which means, among other things, reopening outdoor dining with common-sense health protocols in place as soon as possible.  The restaurant industry was devastated by this lengthy shutdown and I know this would be welcome news to them.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, too, put forward her support for reopening outdoor dining.

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“I support following the Governor’s recommended guidelines for Southern California,” Barger said in a statement, “and reopening outdoor dining, personal care services and other industries that were previously closed by these orders. A data-driven and pragmatic policy approach is essential to protecting public health, while balancing the devastating social, emotional and economic impacts of this virus.”

Another major question is the timing of Newsom’s decision. While rates of new cases and hospitalizations have been coming down, they remain at extraordinary levels, stretching local hospitals to the limit. Intensive Care Unit capacity in the 11-county Southern California region are still at or below 0%, the state indicates on its dashboard. That number is a metric and doesn’t necessarily mean no ICU beds are available — but in recent weeks they have been severely limited.

The county’s rate of infection currently averages 150.7 positive cases per 100,000 people and an adjusted rate of 75.3. For the county to move beyond the purple tier, adjusted infection rate needs to fall below 7 per 100,000. In other words, the county has a long way to go.

The region has been in this cycle before — where restrictions are relaxed only to be tightened again. And the county and state are still months away from vaccine coverage. Dr. Paul Simon, Chief Science Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said last week that at the current rate of delivery, the county may not finish inoculating residents until next year.

Some experts, such as Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, founder of the COVID Action Group, criticized the governor’s move, saying it was not based on sound science and could lead the state to lose further ground in the fight against the pandemic.

As expected, businesses immediately called for easing restrictions.

“To say we are excited about the reopening of on-premise outdoor dining would be an understatement,” chief executive officer Mike Colonna of Norms Restaurants wrote in an email.

Like many Southern California eateries, the Bellflower-based chain of full-service restaurants, known for its discount steak breakfasts, was quick to supply itself with tents and outdoor tables when Newsom shut down dining rooms at the end of June.

“Our goal is to get up and running and bring music back to the areas that we serve,” said Lance Sterling, owner of The Canyon Club, a string of supper clubs in Southern California, which includes locations in Santa Clarita and Agoura Hills. “Whether that takes a month, six months, or 10 years, I have it as my mission to repair all the damage that the close-down has created,” he wrote in an email.

Sterling, who has been auctioning off his own guitars autographed by rock stars to help meet expenses, wants to reopen the outdoor patio restaurants as soon as the weather permits.

It’s unclear if county supervisors will act quickly, or overrule the recommendations of health officers, as they have previously during the pandemic.

Most recently, board chair Hilda Solis issued an executive order last week making all 65-year-old residents eligible for vaccines, even though sufficient doses have not yet been delivered to inoculate the county’s healthcare teams.

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