With more restrictions to take effect, some L.A. County restaurant holdouts defy COVID-19 shutdown orders

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As Los Angeles County battles a surge in coronavirus infections with yet another round of social restrictions, a sense of fatigue with the county’s pandemic response is setting in among some business owners and residents.

With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continuing to climb rapidly, L.A. County’s new safer-at-home order is set to take effect Monday, putting new limits on gatherings, activities and business occupancy.

While less stringent than the one issued in March, the new directive comes less than a week after restaurants learned they’d have to suspend outdoor dining at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars for at least three weeks. 

The countywide order will also be the strictest in California, which had already prohibited nonessential activities in much of the state—including L.A. County—between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. every day through Dec. 21. 

The recent closures and restrictions comes not long after many restaurants had already invested in making their establishments coronavirus-secure, by remodeling their outdoor areas in ways that will allow them to serve more customers under the restrictions.

For some business owners, the stricter limitations meant it was time to speak out as the closures would mean many employees will once again be out of work.

Alex Jordan, owner of the Redondo Beach Bay diner Eat at Joe’s, has been breaking the orders by doing what he’s done for the past two decades—serving up his customers at the iconic greasy spoon.

“We’re still open because I have very loyal employees who have been with me for many, many years, and putting them out of work without any government aid or stimulus or help four weeks before Christmas time is just not OK in any way shape or form with me,” he said. “The fact that they are letting other businesses be open 20%, or 25%, and penalizing us doesn’t seem fair.”

Jordan said he hasn’t heard any negative comments about his decision to stay open, nor has he had anyone tell him to stop his operations or try to shutdown his business. And like many others, he’s starting to question whether the closures does more harm than good.

“COVID is a terrible thing. There is no argument there,” he said. “But I’m not sure that picking on restaurants to such a degree is the answer. It hasn’t been proven through any medical numbers that eating outside is causing this. So why do they have to close us down? We are following all the rules to a T, and still they want to close us down.”

Jordan said he even gave his employees the option to not come to work during this time with no consequences, and yet all of them still wanted to keep working. 

The restaurant owner, who also has been taking direct aim at Gov. Gavin Newsom with a banner up outside the diner that reads The French Laundry — a riff on the governor’s new coronavirus restrictions and his infamous dinner party, said he hopes other businesses with do the same and stay open for outdoor dining.

“I think its important for us to send a message that we can’t just let other people tell us what to do all the time when it’s wrong,” Jordan said.

County health officials have repeatedly said they will focus on education rather than enforcement, though continued non-compliance can lead to fines and closure.

In Pasadena, however, restaurants have been allowed to stay open as long as they have outdoor dining.

The city, which has its own health department, said last Monday that it would assess daily whether to close restaurants, after Los Angeles County halted dining Wednesday at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars for at least three weeks.

But officials are cracking down on those establishments that are not following safety guidelines. Four businesses were told to shut down Friday for failing to comply. While two were reinstated on Saturday night, two more were told to close.

“The most common violations were no face shields, dining tables not distanced, and protocols not completed,” said Lisa Derderian, Pasadena’s public information officer, adding that roughly 50% of restaurants were found to be compliant during the department’s first round of visits.

Meanwhile, foot traffic has been minimal in other parts of the county where it would normally bustling on a Sunday night.  

While there are a few restaurants open for takeout, Hollywood, for example is no longer a go-to destination, at least for the time being. 

“It’s surprisingly quiet,” said Robert Keller, a Hollywood resident, adding that he’s been staying home for the most part during the pandemic and has been cautious about gatherings. “I realize bars are considered outdoor dining, there’s really not much else to do … it’s really unfortunate.” 

Angela Marsden, who owns and manages Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill in Sherman Oaks, was one of the dozens of protesters who showed up outside the home of L.A. County public health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer to express their frustrations over the latest COVID-19 restrictions.

“My staff are terrified, they’re bawling, it’s right before the holidays. And I finally have had enough,” Marsden said in a video shared with KTLA 5 News. “Somebody’s got to do something and say something.”

The protest came just a day before the county will enact another Safer-At-Home order in response to the alarming increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. 

“Barbara, you gave us things to do to keep people safe. You were quoted in the L.A. Times saying that you didn’t have any data to know if COVID was spread in outdoor dining or not,” Marsden said in the video. “Those of us who have done everything right … we should stay open.” 

As of Sunday, L.A. County has had nearly 400,000 confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. The county also reported 5,014 new cases Sunday with 2,049 people hospitalized with COVID-19. There have been 7,639 virus-related deaths across the county during the pandemic.

The figures, which are already climbing faster than ever before, are expected to continue rising in the coming days.

Ferrer called it the “worst surge we’ve ever seen.”

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