Judge orders L.A. County to provide evidence on outdoor dining ban lawsuit

Kitchen Manager Joe Delgado takes down the sides of the outside dining tent at Mimi's Cafe in Valencia on Thursday, 120320. Dan Watson/The Signal

After imposing a temporary ban on outdoor dining, Los Angeles County health officials have to prove in court how it poses a significant risk for COVID-19 transmission, according to a county judge’s ruling Wednesday.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant denied once again the California Restaurant Association’s legal challenge to halt enforcement of the countywide restaurant closure order, but is ordering Public Health Department officials to show why they should not be barred from enforcing the three-week minimum ban, which took effect Nov. 25. 

Chalfant said in the ruling the restaurant group “submitted sufficient evidence showing the irreparable harm that would be suffered by the Restaurant Closure Order” and that “there is no data or scientific evidence showing that outdoor dining poses a significant risk for COVID-19 transmission” based on declarations made by the group. 

Attorneys representing the county did not return requests for comment Thursday, but Public Health officials replied via email with the following statement: 

The outside dining tent remains empty at Crazy Otto’s Diner in Valencia on Thursday, 12/03/20. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Los Angeles County is committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents from a deadly virus that has claimed the lives of more than 7,700 of our friends, family and neighbors and that has sickened more than 400,000 people just in L.A. County. The county looks forward to presenting its case to the court.”

The judge’s ruling came a day before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday a new “Stay-at-Home” order that limits restaurants to take-out and delivery service only in regions where ICU capacity drops below 15%. 

In a previous Board of Supervisors meeting, L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis did not have exact data when asked if restaurants are driving the surge in cases, instead citing 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. That study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining.

Chalfant said that “the CDC survey relied on by Respondents (the county) in issuing the Restaurant Closure Order was irrelevant to the risk of outdoor dining.” 

Despite the court rejecting their challenge against the county, California Restaurant Association President and CEO Jot Condie said Wednesday the group was pleased with Chalfant’s order. 

“As we’ve repeatedly said, their order was arbitrary and targeted restaurants unfairly, without supporting evidence,” Condie said in a prepared statement, adding that the ruling is not tantamount to an immediate return to outdoor dining due to current “Safer at Home” orders. “However, it’s our expectation that if the county is unable to produce evidence justifying this decision, then outdoor dining should be allowed to resume as soon as the stay-at-home order is lifted.”

The court ruling comes after Santa Clarita City Council members voted Nov. 24 to file an amicus brief in support of the restaurant group’s lawsuit. 

“Rather than unilaterally interfere in their lawsuit, we have reached out to the attorneys for the restaurant group as to how the city could best assist their efforts,” Carrie Lujan, city communications manager, said Thursday. “They have responded with appreciation and an indication that they would be in touch at some point.”

The county’s ban on outdoor dining was a tough blow for restaurants as many had prepared for Thanksgiving dinner plans, according to local restaurant owners.

“It’s been really bad for us, for everyone,” Juan Dominguez, manager at Azul Tequila Mexican Bar and Grill in Valencia, said Thursday. “Right now it’s just my two cooks and me, sometimes just one cook and me and it’s bad because of all our employees. It’s Christmas time and everybody has a family, rent and bills to pay.” 

Chalfant ordered the county to address multiple points including, a risk analysis, mortality rates that can be traced to outdoor dining and why the ban had deviated from the state’s protocol, which at the time, did not ban outdoor dining. 

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. 

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