LA County will allow outdoor dining to return as Newsom eases state decree

Los Angeles County will allow outdoor dining on patios, along sidewalks and in parking lots to reopen by the end of the week after state officials said Monday, Jan. 25, they were rescinding regional stay-at-home orders.

Along with outdoor dining, cardroom casinos, recreational facilities, zoos and aquariums will be allowed to open again outdoors, all at 50% capacity. Hair and nail salons will be allowed to reopen indoors with limited capacity. Certain youth sports will also be permitted again, officials said. And outdoor private gatherings will be permitted for up to 15 people in two separate households.

“Timing and safeguards will be instituted. But please don’t take this news to mean you can return to normalcy,” said L.A. County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis. “The situation can change overnight. As we’ve seen before more restrictions could be needed if non compliance leads to more transmission and hospitalizations.”

Earlier Monday, when Gov. Gavin Newsom  lifted the wider stay-at-home orders, 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, on the state’s dashboard. But the move also allowed the county its former flexibility in controlling such areas as how businesses can operate.

“The LA County health officer order from Nov. 25 is now in effect until we issue a new order on Friday which will more fully align with the sector openings,” said Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer on Monday.

Before the wider state order took effect in early December, L.A. County chose to institute stricter rules in late November and shut down outdoor dining. But officials indicated Monday those restrictions would be lifted with a revised order likely to be issued by Friday, meaning outdoor dining will return by the weekend.

“If at any point it looks like we are starting to overwhelm our hospitals again and we are not making progress at slowing the spread, I will be the first person to say we have to do this differently,” Ferrer said. “I’m OK with this if everyone plays by the rules.”

Last November’s 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 rationale 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 governor’s decision Monday morning, L.A. County Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger jumped out early, urging the reopening promptly. At midday, public health officials agreed they would align with the state by the end of the week.

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 per day 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.

But the governor, during a mid-day livestream, said scientific projections in four key areas demonstrated that Southern California was headed in the right direction.

Specifically, the decision to lift wider state-decreed restrictions was based on four factors — regional case rates, community transmission rates, current ICU capacity and percent of cases that are currently going to the ICU.

Over the past two weeks, the state experienced a decline of 9.4% in ICU admissions. Hospitalizations in L.A. County have dropped in recent days to 6,307 as of Monday — from a high of more than 8,000 in early January.

Newsom said projections show Southern California improving to 33% ICU capacity, moving from the lowest region in the state currently at 0% to the highest capacity within a month, which would be a stunning turnaround.

By contrast, the state’s projections show that Northern California, which now has a 47.9% capacity, would move to 27.3% capacity.

“We feel like we are on firm footing based on science, based on firm data and based on common sense as well,” Newsom said.

ICU capacity across L.A. County was about 10%, Ferrer said.

As to how the state makes its own calculations, Ferrer said it wasn’t clear.

“We haven’t seen that algorithm yet,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to actually see how they did that calculation.”

The governor dismissed the idea raised by critics that lifting the stay-at-home order was made to assuage critics and business owners who are challenging the order in court — and his political foes who are mounting a recall effort that appeared to be picking up steam in recent weeks.

“That’s just complete and utter nonsense,” Newsom said. “Fundamental, foundational nonsense.”

If L.A. County experiences another surge, the rules could be tightened up anew, officials said.

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.

“It’s hard to understand what they have in mind,” Bar-Yam said. “You just barely got out of the catastrophic situation. If you relax restrictions now, you’re going to go back up to the catastrophic situation.”

As expected, restaurant and other business owners were eager to welcome customers back.

“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.

Brittany Castillo, owner of City Love Salon & Barber in Long Beach, said her salon closed within four days of opening earlier in the pandemic when rules were changing quickly, so she’s tired of the back and forth.

“It’s great to hear that we can possibly start to work indoors safely again,” she said. “Even with the extra precautions we took earlier I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder waiting for someone from the health department to come shut us down.”

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