UPDATE: County to prohibit restaurant dining as COVID-19 cases climb

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Original story posted: 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22

Most recent update: 4:45 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23

Los Angeles County Public Health Department officials reported the county’s five-day average COVID-19 case rate had reached more than 4,000 Sunday, prompting another tightening of pandemic safeguards and restrictions, including restricting dining at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars.

Effective 10 p.m. Wednesday, outdoor and indoor dining at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars is set to be prohibited, with these businesses only able to offer pickup and delivery, for a minimum of three weeks. Restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars are expected to be notified via email by Public Health officials, who are set to work with them to ensure a smooth transition.

“The persistent high number of cases requires additional safety measures that limit mixing in settings where people are not wearing masks,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a prepared 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.”

COVID-19 cases have more than doubled since the beginning of November, while hospitalizations have also increased significantly, according to Public Health officials.

Because the county continued to anticipate the potential for a continued surge in cases and hospitalizations, officials established thresholds for additional actions if these metrics continue to increase.

The first of these thresholds was met Sunday as the county tallied more than 21,700 new cases in five days, an average of more than 4,000 cases per day. 

This prompted the second revision of the health officer order in one week, as the first revision just took effect Friday and included the mandatory closure of all non-essential businesses between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. 

On Monday, L.A. County reported more than 6,000 COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day case number since the onset of the pandemic. This dramatic increase in COVID-19 figures brought the county’s five-day average up beyond the second threshold of 4,500 cases per day.

Public Health had stated that if the average reaches this threshold, a “Safer at Home” order was expected to be instituted for three weeks, which would only allow essential workers and those securing essential services to leave their homes, along with mandating a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, with essential workers exempt.

“Given that our five-day average case rate is now over 4,500 as of today, we’ll be working with the (county) Board (of Supervisors) to determine additional safety modifications,” Ferrer said in a media briefing Monday. “We’ll be talking with the board (Tuesday) about what we’re calling a ‘targeted safer at home order.’ … This is something that will require deliberation and conversation so that we actually can mark a path forward.”

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, issued a statement Monday, expressing her opposition to the “unnecessary restrictions.” 

“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. “Businesses throughout the county have invested thousands of dollars to ensure safety for their employees and customers only to be punished for the recent surge they have done everything in their power to prevent.”

These restrictions are expected to be discussed during Tuesday’s county Board of Supervisors meeting, and Barger said she will oppose Public Health’s decision, instead calling on the county to align with California’s health orders, which allow counties in the purple tier, such as L.A. County, to continue providing outdoor dining.

City of Santa Clarita officials also issued a statement Monday on behalf of the City Council, agreeing with Barger in her call to align with the state’s guidelines.

“Our Santa Clarita restaurants have taken great care (and expense) to remain in compliance with the health order to provide safe outdoor dining areas,” the city statement read. “For the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to unilaterally make the decision to close outdoor dining countywide on the eve of Thanksgiving, without any public debate or deliberation, is unconscionable.”

The statement was issued by city staff under the authority of the formal action the Santa Clarita City Council took on Oct. 13 to support the responsible reopening of businesses to initiate the economic recovery process, city officials said.

Both Barger and city officials cited Public Health’s own data, which show that restaurants account for only 3.1% of the county’s identified COVID-19 outbreak locations, while Public Health has shown the compliance rate among businesses averages more than 95%.

“Businesses have made incredible sacrifices to align with safety protocols to remain open in order to pay their bills and feed their families,” Barger added in the statement. “Our hospitalization rates are among the lowest we’ve seen. Yet, the rationale for further closures is tied to the number of patients in the hospital. We’ve come a long way to support workers and residents who are struggling to stay afloat and should not regress on the progress we’ve made.”

While COVID-19 cases are increasing, Barger, as well as business leaders in the SCV, agree that those cases are not coming from business reopenings, but from large gatherings where people aren’t wearing masks.

“The rapid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases is alarming, especially as we head into the heart of the holiday season, (but) Public Health data does not suggest that dining outdoors at restaurants is a leading cause of COVID-19 cases,” said Ivan Volschenk, managing partner at Evolve Business Strategies, which manages the SCV Chamber of Commerce. “By closing outdoor dining at restaurants, we are further driving people to gather at social settings that are, in fact, a leading case of COVID-19 cases in the county. We need to follow both the science and the data.”

Holly Schroeder, CEO and president of the SCV Economic Development Corp., agreed, adding, “It’s particularly frustrating because the messaging leading up to this was that (Public Health officials) thought the spread was coming from people staying at home and having gatherings in their home, and yet, the action that is taken is to shut down restaurants that are under strict public health protocols.” 

Schroeder believes these restrictions may go as far as further exacerbating the spread of the virus, as when options like eating out are gone, people are likely to continue gathering in their homes. 

Ferrer was posed this very question on Monday, to which she replied, “While there’s high compliance at the majority of our restaurants, when you’re accounting (for) our (county’s) size, just having a few thousand restaurants that are not in compliance, particularly on the distancing requirement, can create additional risks for exposures.”

“I think the unfortunate reality is at many of our restaurants, while people are eating and drinking, they’re not wearing other face coverings for the vast majority of time when they’re there,” Ferrer added. “There just ends up being a significant amount of risk associated with those activities, and that can, in fact, increase our spread.”

The public can address the county Board of Supervisors during the regular meeting scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. For more information, visit bos.lacounty.gov

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