California Restaurants Shut Down Indefinitely

It’s no secret that eager businesspersons and customers have been complicit in bringing an indefinite quarantine back to Los Angeles, shortly after a brief respite. On July 13th, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that California would close indoor operations across the state, including restaurants, wineries and bars. Recent data shows a stark increase in hospitalizations as well as overall positivity rates; California just crested 7,000 coronavirus-related deaths and 8,000 new cases in a single day.

On July 1st, Los Angeles County, among others, got the news that they would have three more weeks of shutdowns after a very brief reopening period. Though some disappointment quickly arose, businesses of all kinds looked forward to getting back to business soon. Thus not everyone was pleased when, not even two weeks later, the state government decided to stretch out those closures indefinitely for every city. Including food service, Newsom’s tweet announcing the decision also mentioned that movie theaters, zoos, museums and “family entertainment” venues will close indoor operations, among others. Every county in California will shut down a lot of their businesses for the foreseeable future.

Though disappointing, the news isn’t a total surprise; although the shutdown presents major issues for Los Angeles restaurants who were beginning to get back into their workflow, even though those businesses are partially responsible for the blow. On Friday, June 19th, restaurants and other nonessential businesses in the county were greenlit to resume in-person operations, a major advantage for those struggling to stay afloat after only offering takeout and delivery services for months on end. Other California counties had been open for weeks already.

Of course the good news couldn’t last: Just two weeks later, California closed down all its cities after seeing the spike in COVID-19 cases that occurred from those few short weeks of normal operations. This time, the closures were only portended to last three weeks. However in the past two weeks since then, hospitalizations around California have risen 28% and ICU admissions have gone up 20%.

It’s not just L.A.: Numbers have risen all over the state. The past two weeks showed a steady increase in daily new cases which can’t be entirely attributed to more testing: Positivity rates measure the amount of positive COVID-19 tests compared to negative ones, and that statistic has been rising too. In the past week alone, positivity rates increased 7.7%, a steep setback after only seven days. It’s a bad omen for what Californian healthcare systems will face in the coming weeks.

Can restaurants be trusted to reopen, or will this happen every time a state chooses the economy over basic safety? Over the last weekend in June, health inspectors dropped in on thousands of L.A. restaurants and bars to see how well they followed coronavirus-related protocol. There, they found that:

  • One-third of restaurants and almost half of all bars didn’t social distance inside their establishments.
  • 44% of restaurants and 54% of bars didn’t enforce face masks or protective coverings.
  • Most commonly, restaurants violated the order to put up proper signage detailing safety guidelines for customers.

Downtown Los Angeles, California.

Additionally, the state administered lax punishment for violations. Restaurants might have been shut down after multiple visits and citations, but overall health inspectors took an education-based approach. They advised onsite managers how to resolve infractions but rarely issued violation orders, and even when they did, those orders didn’t include a fine so there was very little incentive to follow the rules. Even when a restaurant eventually got shut down, it could take weeks from the initial citation—while in the meantime, they potentially spread COVID-19 to thousands and thousands of people. Monitoring one establishment for weeks on end also causes a significant drain on the Department of Public Health’s resources.

Last week, Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl from the LA County Board of Supervisors proposed a motion to rectify this oversight. The plan, which initially had two weeks to include a solidified enforcement strategy, went like so:

  • Proposed fines at the first violation found by an environmental health inspector.
  • Fines on every business that the DPH has the authority to impose them on.
  • Set protocol for how to move forward after a noncompliant business is fined at the first offense, including how to handle subsequent infractions.

If inspectors receive complaints or find infractions after the first fine, that restaurant could face revocation of their business permit or liquor license as early as the second violation. This, as well as the size of the initial fine, depends on where the noncompliance issue lies, the maximum occupancy of the business and how severe the risk is to public health. Though the rules would have been applicable to any business caught violating the rules, restaurants were particularly worried because of the toll that months of shutdown orders had taken on an industry that already operated off of thin profit margins.

The board still had a week left to decide how best to make the punishment fit the crime, though with restaurants closed indefinitely, it’s unclear whether they’re moving forward with their proposition at all. It would certainly be useful for the future: When restaurants eventually open back up, whether in a few weeks or many months from now, there needs to be protocols in place so that businesses can operate more safely. California doesn’t have the resources to handle infractions the way that it has, giving three or four warnings without consequences when restaurants should have met these basic standards before reopening in the first place. We can’t keep going through this same exact cycle every couple of months; this proposition would be one way to mitigate that to some degree.

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Of course, shutting down for an unspecified length of time renders concerns about fines obsolete. Restaurants should treat that worry as a warning sign of the distant future, something to keep in mind when they finally get to open again. For now, weathering the worst of the ongoing pandemic should be everyone’s paramount concern.

In the meantime, state officials are more worried about the immediate future of their citizens. On Friday, health experts estimated that the county only has 113 ICU beds left for a populace that stands ten million strong. Test results are getting delayed again as the healthcare system becomes overwhelmed, and politicians still struggle to balance health and safety over saving face in a climate where wearing a mask has somehow become a divisive issue.

Clearly something has got to change. Whether California will take this opportunity to implement long-term structural change to the food service industry and the legislation surrounding it, or if other states will follow its lead and close down completely, too.

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