Closed! Open! Closed Again! Bar Owners Get Whiplash After Latest Order To Shut Down

A waiter wearing a face shield prepares to serve beer at a bar in La Malvarrosa in Valencia, Spain on May 19, 2020. (JOSE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The Gold Line bar in Highland Park had been planning on re-opening this month until Gov. Newsom ordered bars in Los Angeles County closed immediately on June 28, (Photo courtesy of The Gold Line bar)

Shuttered since March 13, the Gold Line Bar in Highland Park was supposed to welcome back patrons as early as this week, with servers wearing face shields and gatherings limited to six people.

Then came Gov. Gavin Newsom's order Sunday: Bars in Los Angeles and six other California counties had to close immediately because of the rapid spread of coronavirus in those areas.

While Gold Line's co-owner Jason McGuire deferred to the judgement of public health officials, he worried about the financial viability of the cocktail spot.

"It's very challenging," McGuire said. "We have bills to pay."

The mandatory bar closures come barely a week after drinking spots in Los Angeles County were allowed to reopen. Newsom's order also applies to the following counties:

  • Fresno
  • San Joaquin
  • Kings
  • Kern
  • Imperial
  • Tulare

The governor on Sunday also urged eight other counties to issue local health orders to close bars:

  • Contra Costa
  • Santa Clara
  • Sacramento
  • Riverside
  • San Bernardino
  • Ventura
  • Santa Barbara
  • Stanislaus

"Californians must remain vigilant against this virus," Newsom said in statement. "COVID-19 is still circulating in California, and in some parts of the state, growing stronger. That's why it is critical we take this step to limit the spread of the virus in the counties that are seeing the biggest increases."

The state's public health department cited reasons why bars were being targeted in the order, saying they posed a higher risk of transmission of COVID-19.

  • At bars, people mix with non-household members
  • Alcohol reduces compliance w/social distancing, using masks
  • Loud setting causes people to raise their voices and potentially lead to the "greater projection of oral emitted viral droplets"
  • Contact tracing is harder because of the constant foot traffic
  • Bars attract young people who tend to be less symptomatic and could unknowingly be spreading covid around
Tommy Mofid, owner and bartender of the Wrigley Tavern in Long Beach, reopened his doors two Fridays ago only to close again Sunday. (Gab Chabran for LAist)

In Long Beach, Tommy Mofid said he felt that bars like his — vintage cocktail lounge Wrigley Tavern were being unfairly singled out. He said he had reduced his bar's occupancy to 60% and had been taking customers' temperature and squirting hand sanitizer into their hands. He said he had also been wiping down seats and tables with bleach after each use.

"I personally would be a lot more afraid of going to a gym or going to a barber," Mofid said.

Mofid reopened the Wrigley Tavern on Friday, June 19, the first day L.A. County bars were once again allowed to welcome patrons. (The pent-up demand saw about 500,000 people go out for a drink the day after, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.)

Mofid said he was frustrated by confusing guidance from government officials who seemed to be "winging it."

He is also trying to adapt to their rules by working to revive his bar's dormant kitchen.

The California Department of Public Health guidance says bars and other watering holes can stay home if they "are offering sit-down, dine-in meals. Alcohol can only be sold in the same transaction as a meal."

An employee works at a bar in Grand Central Market on March 15, 2020 in downtown Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

"I wish we could continue to just be a cocktail bar only," Mofid said. "But it seems like everything is pushing us towards having to become an alcohol-and-food venue."

At Bar Covell in Los Feliz, which serves meals, could stay open, a relief for co-owner Matthew Kaner.

At the same time, he wondered if the order will hurt his business because it could shake the public's confidence in dining out.

"What's going to happen right now is everyone's getting this information and everyone's going to freak out and not feel safe to go out," Kaner said.

Kaner said that his staff have taken great pains to create a safe restaurant setting: Only al fresco dining is allowed, and seating is separated by at least six feet. Diners can only go indoors to use the restroom and must wear a mask. Multiple hand sanitizing stations dot the establishment.

While he fears falling sales, Kaner said he also believes "what the state is doing is the right decision." Kaner had anticipated that the bar closures were coming given that Texas and Florida had closed theirs.

"We knew that a place like California that's progressive and understanding of the situation would act like this as well," Kaner said. "We just didn't know when."

The governor's order comes as positive coronavirus cases sharply rise in the state, especially among younger adults, following social gatherings over Memorial Day weekend, reopened businesses in many places and widespread street protests against police brutality.

On Saturday, the state reported a rise of nearly 6,000 confirmed virus cases from the day before. Nearly 5,900 people have died from coronavirus complications in the state. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The list of counties impacted by Sunday's order was based on daily reports on the spread of the virus, state officials said. Counties on the state's watch list for more than 14 days are required to shut down any bar that has reopened for business.

"Closing bars in these counties is one of a number of targeted actions counties are implementing across our state to slow the virus' spread and reduce risk," the state's public health director Dr. Sonia Angell said in a statement.

Those counties on the state's watch list for between three and 14 days are being asked to close bars through local health orders.

Local law enforcement agencies said they were just learning of the order along with everyone else.

"We just got the notice. But as of right now, we have not been given any guidance, which way. It's breaking news," Officer Rosario Cervantes, a spokesperson in the Los Angeles Police Department, told City News Service.

Los Angeles County officials have reported "significant increases" in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rates in recent days, including 2,169 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 23 additional deaths reported Saturday.

Those numbers brought the county's totals to 95,371 cases and 3,285 fatalities.

According the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, the seven-day average of daily new cases is more than 1,900, an increase from the 1,379 average two weeks ago. There are 1,698 people currently hospitalized, which is higher than the 1,350 to 1,450 daily hospitalizations seen in recent weeks.

Some officials have attributed the rise in overall cases to increases in testing, but Barbara Ferrer, the county's director of public health, said repeatedly in recent days that the metrics clearly demonstrate an increase in community spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.