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Just as L.A.’s hospitality sector was starting to recover from the last wave of the COVID-19 virus, restaurants and nightlife venues are bracing for the effects of the surging Omicron variant and contemplating the possibility of renewed restrictions.
Almost two years into the pandemic, closed doors and canceled bookings are familiar occurrences. But with Omicron sweeping across the country — accounting for 73 percent of new positive infections in the U.S. last week and more than 3,500 cases in Los Angeles County, according to the county health department — business owners are determining how best to prepare. Some are making immediate changes while others are taking a wait-and-see approach, keeping a close eye on the news and the reservation books.
Mary Sue Milliken, chef and co-owner of downtown’s Border Grill and Santa Monica’s Socalo, says that sales declined by more than 20 percent over the weekend. She’s also seen an increase in requests to eat outside.
“The biggest decline is just in the walk-in business, spur-of-the-moment,” Milliken says. “I think people are feeling more like, ‘Hmm, maybe I should stay home.'” She hopes to see an uptick in takeaway orders and meal kits. “Hopefully this will be a short-lived spike,” she says.
In the meantime, the chef says she’s concerned for her staff, even though they are all vaccinated and boosted and wear masks at all times. Earlier in the pandemic, a nurse came to the restaurant once a week to test employees, and Milliken is considering restarting that practice.
“I really don’t know what to expect from one day to the next,” says Milliken. “I did wake up for the last three days with a bit of a tummy ache. It’s just worry, but I’m like, ‘Ugh! I don’t want to be back here.’”
Caitlin Cutler, co-owner of Ronan on Melrose Avenue, says that the restaurant has not yet seen a rise in cancelations, but the team is nevertheless preparing itself for the wave.
“We are trying to make alternative plans for whatever comes our way, whether it be positive COVID cases amongst staff members or having the government reimpose restrictions,” Cutler says. “It has been the nature of the beast for the past two years to roll with the punches, so we have strategies to deal with those situations if they arise,” including the possibility of limiting seating to the eatery’s heated outdoor patio. “I am guessing that January will be slower than usual, but if that keeps our staff safe, I welcome that.”
Elsewhere in Santa Monica, at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows, General Manager Sam Jagger likewise says that offering al fresco dining options for those who feel more comfortable in an open-air setting is one way they are handling the unpredictable COVID climate. For the moment, he says, Omicron has not affected bookings, which he credits to lessons learned from the last wave.
“The latest COVID wave has had no notable impact on business, which can be partially attributed to the high vaccination rate in L.A. County, coupled with ongoing travel requirements and robust testing,” Jagger says, adding: “We are not anticipating any dramatic precautions and mandates as defined by L.A. Public Health, however our protocols provide the solid foundation for continuing operations safely with minimal interruption.”
Christy Vega, owner of Casa Vega, says regular bookings are holding steady but that Omicron has recently impacted reservations for large events at the retro Mexican restaurant. “We have seen large events and corporate parties cancel in the past week,” says Vega. “This is a shame since restaurants were still struggling to get back on their feet.”
Casa Vega’s annual New Year’s Eve party will not feature its usual midnight show, with dancers and entertainment. “We have canceled those arrangements, simultaneously booking them for next year,” Vega says. “We will still be open to celebrate but are encouraging a much more mellow environment for our diners.”
Lisa Olin, owner of Cake Monkey Bakery in Mid-City, says that in light of the new variant, she is reducing the number of customers allowed inside their shop. “We are also placing limits on orders so that we can ensure that we can fulfill everything due to the limited staffing many restaurants and food businesses are facing at this time,” she says.
Within Hollywood, plans have also been shifting rapidly. The first film to cancel its red carpet premiere this month was Cyrano, which scrapped its Dec. 16 event due to “the changing COVID landscape.” On Monday, several others followed suit: The Palm Springs International Film Society’s Film Awards gala — scheduled for Jan. 6 and set to honor a starry crowd, including Kristen Stewart, Lady Gaga, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Hudson and the casts of Belfast and King Richard — was canceled; Jan. 8’s annual BAFTA Tea Party was also nixed, and the AFI Awards luncheon, set for Jan. 7, was rescheduled for a later date. On Tuesday, the Hollywood Critics Association pushed its HCA Film Awards, scheduled for Jan. 8 at Avalon Hollywood, to Feb. 28.
And while the industry was already scheduled to be largely red carpet-less for the last two weeks of 2021, the hiatus will be extended. Hulu canceled its event for the movie Sex Appeal on Jan. 10, originally planned at NeueHouse Hollywood. The streamer also canceled a premiere screening and reception for How I Met Your Father, set for Jan. 12.
Along with the several TV premieres still on the calendar for early January, the variant now calls into question the viability of the Critics Choice Awards, currently set for an in-person return Jan. 9 at the Fairmont Century Plaza; the National Review Board awards gala, in New York on Jan. 11; and the Grammys on Jan. 31.
By and large, the hospitality sector has yet to take such swift action. David Cooley, owner and founder of West Hollywood staple The Abbey, says that guests appear concerned but still eager to go out. “We’re continuing to see our regulars and newcomers, travelers and locals alike celebrating the holiday season enjoying themselves whether outside on the patio or inside for dinner and drinks,” Cooley says. “We are a lot busier than we were last year and that lets us know how far we’ve come as a community.”
Cooley adds that the restaurant and bar continue to require masks and proof of vaccination and “if stricter precautions are mandated, we will follow those protocols too and do whatever is necessary to keep our community safe.”
Cyrus Batchan, owner of Koreatown bar and restaurant Lock and Key, has taken a more aggressive approach. Even though he has not seen a dramatic drop in business, he decided to close down the venue this coming holiday weekend after seeing the Omicron numbers out of New York.
“Normally I would be open on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day is always the holiday, and then we’re always open the day after Christmas. But this week, just based on everything that’s going on, I just said it’s better to take those three days and hit a hard pause,” he says.
Batchan acknowledges that total closure is always a possibility and is awaiting guidance from the city to know how to proceed.
Julia Diamond, director of Grand Park, addressed the decision to cancel downtown L.A.’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration, saying the organization took into consideration “so many factors that are affecting public gatherings right now and all the messaging that’s coming out of the county’s public health department.”
The park, which is operated by The Music Center and typically hosts about 75,000 people at its New Year’s Eve event, had already reduced attendance to an invitation-only group of 5,000 L.A. County frontline workers and first responders. But given the latest numbers, Diamond says her team decided to prioritize at-home viewing. The event will be produced as a broadcast and available to stream on Fuse and on Grand Park’s YouTube channel at 11 p.m. PT on Dec. 31,. Headliner Kinky and other announced musical performers will still be part of the program, along with the event’s signature countdown projection onto City Hall.
For now, it’s all eyes on next year as Los Angeles waits to see if it will experience the same kind of alarming case numbers New York has been seeing since last week.
“We are just trying not to stress too much as Christmas approaches,” says Cutler, of Ronan. “We have all earned this holiday and we are trying to make sure our staff stays safe and gets to enjoy their holiday plans.”
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