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Even With A Green Light, Don't Expect All Of LA's Restaurants To Reopen This Weekend

People eat takeout food at a public parklet in Manhattan Beach on December 12, 2020. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
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If you're wondering why Los Angeles restaurants are being allowed to reopen for outdoor dining as Southern California's ICU capacity remains near zero and air quality regulators lift limits on the number of bodies crematoriums can burn, you are not alone. Some restaurateurs are just as confused.

"I have to say we were all pretty shocked and a little bit overwhelmed at how sudden that decision came," Susan Feniger, co-owner and co-chef of the Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles and Socalo in Santa Monica, told our newsroom's local culture and news show Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC. "We all sort of thought maybe March, maybe April with the vaccine."

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted California's regional stay-at-home orders, returning control over pandemic restrictions to individual counties, which can loosen, tighten or maintain current regulations. Most counties, including Los Angeles, have returned to the strictest tier — purple — in the state's color-coded COVID-19 reopening plan.

L.A. County officials said they'll align with the state by allowing outdoor dining (and other types of businesses, such as nail salons) to re-open with limited capacity.

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The upshot is that L.A. County restaurants will be allowed to resume outdoor dining this Friday, Jan. 29. (Public health officials had put the kibosh on outdoor dining in late November, despite resistance from local politicians and a lawsuit.) But there will be restrictions.

Barbara Ferrer, the director of Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health, was meeting Wednesday with restaurant owners and employee unions about what safety measures will be required when outdoor dining resumes. Previously, restaurant patios could be open at 50% capacity.

Many restaurants were surprised by the reopening timeline and may not be ready to resume outdoor dining this week.

"How do we want to handle it? Is it a 'for sure' thing? [What] if we do this then there's a shift that happens in a week from now? What's the smartest decision to keep our team safe and healthy and be able to do that for the public?" Feniger said.

When outdoor dining was shuttered in November, Feniger said she had just spent "a bunch of money" on redoing her restaurant's outdoor patio. "We had just finished phase one and we literally never got to use it."

Now, she has to decide whether it's worth the expense of completing the process and opening at limited capacity or waiting until some later date when the restaurant can seat more people.

"Every penny right now that we spend is very critical," Feniger said. When outside dining was shut down, she estimated she laid off 60-65% of the people who were working for her.

She asked:

"So now you bring people back, you bring on more staff to be able to hopefully handle a little bit of an increase in business. But if you don't get the increase because it's sudden and the weather's cold and vaccinations aren't happening… you've brought people back on — but is there business?"

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