LOS ANGELES (CNS) - In-person dining will end tonight for the next three weeks at Los Angeles County restaurants, thanks to a surge in COVID-19 cases that has led to increased hospitalization numbers and a sudden rise in deaths.
On Tuesday, county Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn introduced a motion seeking to maintain the status quo of allowing outdoor dining, arguing the ban will be too onerous on restaurants that are already struggling during the pandemic. But Supervisors Sheila Kuehl, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis stood behind the ban.
Meanwhile, more restrictions appear to be on tap for residents and businesses due to the surge. During the supervisors' meeting, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer outlined plans for a “targeted Safer At Home'' order that would prohibit all public and private gatherings of people not in the same household, with exceptions only for outdoor church services and constitutionally protected protests.
The proposed order, which met with no objections from the board, would allow other retail businesses to stay open but would further restrict capacity and continue to require the use of masks and social distancing. The plan would stop short of the complete lockdown imposed at the outset of the pandemic. Schools would also remain open for high-need students and under TK-2 school-specific waivers, as would beaches, parks and trails.
It was unclear when that order might take effect.
The board's Tuesday discussion of the ban on outdoor dining came one day after the county reached a five-day average of daily new cases that topped 4,500 -- the threshold set by the county last week to trigger a “targeted Safer At Home'' order.
On Sunday, the county reached a five-day daily average of 4,000 cases, which was the previously announced threshold to cut off in-person dining at restaurants, wineries and breweries. As a result, the county announced Sunday afternoon that in-person dining would be prohibited beginning at 10 p.m. Wednesday, continuing for three weeks. Restaurants will still be permitted to offer carry-out and delivery service.
Although the Board of Supervisors signed off on the thresholds last week, Barger and Hahn said they never expected to hit the target so quickly.
“I have never experienced the kind of pushback I am hearing,'' Hahn said of the in-person dining ban. “The public doesn't think that that recommendation is right, and they don't think it's going to work, and they are really losing faith and trust in the decisions that we're making.''
The California Restaurant Association filed suit Tuesday, unsuccessfully seeking an injunction to stop the ban. A host of residents spoke at the board's meeting via videoconference, largely opposing the ban.
Paul Little, president of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, said, “The current surge in COVID-19 cases is attributed to Halloween events, the Dodgers and Biden's victory, not outdoor dining and restaurants, shopping and retail stores or exercising. It makes no sense to penalize restaurants when they are not causing the surge in infection rates. Socially distanced and safe outdoor dining is exactly that: safe.''
While the Board of Supervisors was discussing the issue, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an emergency resolution urging the county to allow in-person dining to continue.
Barger had earlier cited estimates by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation that approximately 700,000 food industry jobs could be lost, with 75% of those losses affecting workers earning $50,000 or less annually.
“I feel this is arbitrary and punitive toward outdoor dining and restaurants,'' Barger told her colleagues Tuesday.
Barger pushed back hard against the idea that science supported the need to shut down dining, saying that cases were higher in part because of residents rushing to be tested before the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We have even seen our positivity rate drop over the last four days. Right now our positivity rate is the same as when we began to open Safer At Home,'' Barger said. “There is no sufficient data to show that outdoor dining has led to significant transmission. ... No other county has taken the step to close outdoor dining.''
Ferrer did not directly refute that comment in the meeting, but noted Monday that the surge in cases is not just the result of increased testing. She said the county's recent rise in positivity rates shows the virus is spreading more rapidly. The county's seven-day average daily positivity rate among those tested for the virus was 3.9% on Nov. 1, but it rose to 5.1% by Nov. 8 andstood at 7.1% as of Saturday.
Barger suggested aligning with state guidelines and holding off on new mandates for two weeks to see the impact of earlier restrictions. But Ferrer said case counts would not decrease without further restrictions.
“We can't really keep waiting to take action,'' Ferrer said. “It's not like without taking some additional steps we're likely to see ourselves back to a more reasonable case number.''
Dr. Christina Ghaly, who runs the county hospital system, reiterated the concern about hospital capacity.
“At this point, unless changes have been made in people's behavior ... to reduce transmission and unless steps continue to be made, then I do anticipate that we will use up those currently available beds,'' Ghaly said. “The problem ... is not physical beds... The challenge, as it has been throughout the pandemic, is with staffing.''
Hospitals can shift some staff, but have no ability to draw on other regions for medical personnel given the nationwide surge in cases, Ghaly explained.
Ferrer and Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis acknowledged that contact tracing cannot definitively point to outdoor dining as the cause of the surge, but stressed it is the only retail activity that allows customers to be mask-less for long periods of time.
Kuehl underlined the risk that poses to staff and other customers.
“It's a bit of magical thinking on everyone's part to think that at any restaurant anywhere that the server keeps a six-foot distance from the table,'' Kuehl said. “I sadly, but strongly, support moving our restaurants back to take-out and delivery.''
Hahn suggested that the county simply crack down on the 20% of restaurants failing to comply with health orders. But Ferrer pointed out that health inspectors can only make weekly visits to about 1% of the 31,000 restaurants countywide.
The city of Long Beach, which maintains its own health department separate from the county, announced that it will follow in the county's footsteps and also end in-person dining Wednesday night.
Some Pasadena City Council members indicated a desire Monday night to keep restaurants open for in-person dining. City officials said health officials will assess the situation day-by-day, but so far no move has been made to end in-person dining in Pasadena.
The severity of the surge in COVID-19 cases was made evident later Tuesday, when the county Department of Public Health announced 51 new coronavirus-related deaths. That's the highest daily death total since Sept. 9. Health officials in Long Beach reported another four deaths Monday. The new fatalities increased the countywide death toll to 7,501.
The county reported another 3,692 confirmed coronavirus cases, while Long Beach added 296 and Pasadena reported 49 more. The overall number of cases in the county stood at 374,479.
There were 1,575 people hospitalized due to coronavirus as of Tuesday, according to health officials. That's up from 888 just two weeks ago.
On a motion from Barger, the board approved allocating an additional $10 million in coronavirus relief funding for local businesses, with a focus on restaurants. The board also directed health officials to engage university researchers in developing responses to the pandemic and crafting reopening plans.
Photos: Getty Images