Santa Clarita announced plans to file an amicus brief in support of an ongoing lawsuit to block Los Angeles County’s ban on outdoor dining, which went into effect the day before Thanksgiving.
The move comes after City Council members, during their regular meeting Tuesday evening, expressed frustration with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors’ decision earlier that day to uphold the Public Health Department’s order to pause dining at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars as COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations surge.
The California Restaurant Association challenged Tuesday the ban on outdoor dining and sought to have it barred until county public health officials could offer scientific evidence that supports in-person dining poses a significant risk to people. A California judge rejected the group’s request, but efforts are expected to continue.
“While we are disappointed that the court did not enter an order today pumping the brakes on L.A.’s outdoor dining closure, we are pleased that the court recognized our right to put the county to the test to prove that they have a scientific basis for the shutdown of outdoor dining and we plan to move forward in requiring the county to offer that proof,” Jot Condie, president and CEO of the association, said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Santa Clarita Valley restaurants called the restrictions, which include the mandatory closure of all non-essential businesses between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a “gut punch” as many scrambled to adjust or cancel Thanksgiving dinner plans.
“I would like the supervisors who voted for this order to ask them if they’re going to take all the spoiled food that restaurants aren’t able to serve and all of the people who are now going to be out of work again, whether they’re going to pay their rent,” said Councilwoman Marsha McLean.
Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who called the county’s decision “draconian behavior,” said the City Council should act immediately in lending support for the lawsuit.
“This is an emergency,” she said. “We did not know what the county was going to do, and it is going to devastate so many businesses in this valley and hurt so many families and so many people that I think that we should move ahead and do it now.”
Under an emergency motion, the council voted unanimously for the amicus brief in support of the lawsuit. Mayor Cameron Smyth did not attend the meeting but said Wednesday he supported his fellow council members and called the supervisors’ decision “unconscionable.”
“Our local businesses have gone to great lengths and to their own expense to set up their businesses so they could stay open and be in compliance,” said Smyth. “When you eliminate restaurants as an option I think it’ll drive more people to get together within their homes and it can actually have an inverse effect.”
Council members, along with county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the SCV, said there is no data that supports closing in-person dining. Barger cast one of two dissenting votes in the supervisors’ 3-2 decision Tuesday.
L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found that those who tested positive are two times more likely to have gone to eat at a restaurant than not, as he did not have exact local data.
Public Health data from Nov. 16-22 showed that 81% of more than 700 eateries complied with physical distancing measures, 91% complied with face-covering protocols and 96% followed disinfection protocols. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that the 20% that failed to follow distancing guidelines could increase transmission of the virus to hundreds of thousands of people.
“Almost 20% of restaurants were not in compliance with social distancing mandates,” she said. “In L.A. County, that’s more than 6,000 sites, which could easily translate to more than 300,000 people at increased risk of exposure if each of those sites had 50 people in them.”
The county’s latest COVID-19 restrictions only urge Santa Clarita officials to pursue a local health department, according to Smyth.
“It reinforces the decision for us to begin the research,” he said, adding that last week he conversed with council colleagues in Lancaster and Palmdale to consider the idea of a north county health department.
“I think it’s worth having a discussion about expanding into what a regional model could look like as opposed to just an individual city (model),” Smyth said, “because we know that creating a new bureaucracy department is going to have significant costs associated with that and, if there’s a way to spread the costs, it’s worth it.”