L.A. Restaurants React to Newly Lifted Stay-at-Home Order: "Reopening Is Not as Easy as Flipping a Light Switch"

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Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the state's stay-at-home order Monday, paving the way for L.A. County to reopen outdoor dining and earning mixed feelings from restaurateurs.

Two months after outdoor dining was prohibited in Los Angeles amid a stricter stay-at-home order, local restaurants can once again welcome in-person customers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted orders across the state Monday in response to improving COVID-19 conditions after a record-breaking surge around the holidays. The order had been in place in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, and the change will now return the state to county-by-county restrictions. As a result, businesses and restaurants will be allowed to resume outdoor operations in many areas, though local officials could choose to continue stricter rules. The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

L.A. County, which has been at the center of the recent COVID-19 surge, confirmed Monday afternoon that it would follow suit with the lifting of outdoor dining restrictions. Supervisor Hilda L. Solis announced via Twitter that the county would allow for permitted activities under the Purple Tier, which includes outdoor dining, starting on Friday. Though the decision to roll back dining regulations is a controversial one, many in the hard-hit food community are hopeful.

“This is very good, and very welcome, news," says Matthew De Marte, general manager of West Hollywood seafood spot Connie & Ted's. "There is still a lot of resentment in the restaurant community on having to close our safe outdoor dining service in the first place, but Connie & Ted’s is ready to go as soon as we get the go-ahead from L.A. County. We just hope they follow suit.”

Mozza's director of operations Kate Greenberg echoes, "We are excited about reopening and we are bound and determined to make it safe," as Ari Rosenson, executive chef at Spago Beverly Hills, says the prospects of forthcoming rule changes "give me hope that the end of the mass extinction of the hospitality industry will come to an end.

"It is of the utmost importance that this happens with haste. If we don’t open restaurants soon, the future of so many Californians that are able to be employed by the industry will come to an abrupt end," says Rosenson. "Many of my friends continue to close their restaurants, cementing an end to so many life dreams and negating all of the hard work that goes into running a restaurant.”

Francesco Zimone, owner of L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, is also excited about the possibility of safely reopening. The historic Italian pizzeria has 3,000 square feet of outdoor dining space and lost 85 percent of business when dining was shut down in December. "If you tell me we can open this afternoon, we're going to have customers tonight," says Zimone. "I don't have front-of-the-house staff, but I'm going to serve tables personally. The last time Garcetti said we could reopen, in June, I think it was at 5 p.m., [and] at 5:03 we had customers."

John Secretan, founder and owner of Zinc Café & Market in the Arts District, agrees, "Outdoor dining, with proper regulations, is very safe. Our revenue dropped by 90 percent since the closure of outdoor seating. The community has basically given up on supporting business due to the tremendous unreliability of expectations. One day it's this and the next day that … One more reversal will cause havoc and anger and simply add to the devastation our industry has already endured."

The Rooftop by Jean-Georges and Waldorf Cafe in Beverly Hills plan to open this Saturday (Jan. 30) as rain is in the Friday forecast. General manager Vanessa Williams recognizes that "the closure has negatively impacted business in all areas of the city," yet remains hopeful, saying "with the announcement that outdoor dining can reopen on Friday, we are confident it will breathe life back into all aspects of our community."

And though many restaurant owners are enthused by the idea of no longer having to rely exclusively on takeout and delivery to pay their bills, others are concerned about the logistics and sudden policy turnaround.

"We need advance warning so we can re-staff, which is not as easy as it might seem. It would also be great if restaurant chefs, owners and workers could get priority on the vaccine," says Akasha owner Akasha Richmond. "But we all want outdoor dining again, it makes a huge difference for us."

Executive chef Travis Strickland of Baltaire in Brentwood says, "As has become par for the course, restaurateurs have been kept in the complete dark about the future of our industry. While we are on one hand excited for the opportunity to reopen and get back to our work, on the other hand we are caught completely off guard, and are now scrambling to reorganize and strategize about safely reopening. Personally I can't help but to think that this is yet another arbitrary decision made with no consideration to those who it affects the most.”

Adds Sandra Cordero of Woodland Hills' Gasolina Café, “Re-re-re-re-opening a restaurant is not as easy as flipping a light switch. There are a lot of spokes to make the wheel turn. Ordering, staffing, menu planning and executing, there’s rain and cold weather. There’s kids that are still not back in school. I’m not excited, I’m exhausted!”

Some, like Baldwin Hills kitchen Post & Beam, are even deciding to ignore the ever-changing regulations and reopen on their own terms.

“We anticipated a reopening sometime in March, so that’s the timeline Post & Beam will stick to," says co-owner Roni Cleveland. "Although a reopening appears to be happening now, we plan to do what’s best for our community and will open when we are prepared to do so."

One business that hasn't been too affected by the constant changes in regulations is Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen, the South L.A. boutique coffee shop where Issa Rae is a partner. "Our concern remains for the health and safety of our team and our neighbors," says co-founder Yonnie Hagos. "One of the most important decisions we made early on was to stick to a take-away and delivery model. Business hasn’t changed markedly once we made the initial adjustments to the challenges posed by the pandemic." Hagos attributes the consistent business to a successful social media campaign #HilltopAtHome and support from the surrounding community.

The Independent Hospitality Coalition, which formed in April 2020 to bring a voice to independent hospitality, restaurants and bars in L.A. County, has been working with the county to create safe guidelines to allow for outdoor dining ahead of Monday's announcement. The coalition now has over 400 member restaurants, representing 20,000 employees.

"On a federal level, they really need to pass the Restaurants Act," urges IHC co-founder and partner at EKA, Adam Englander. "But really, it comes down to the county letting us, and people who have experience in actually running restaurants, go and help craft rules and guidelines to make sure they are the safest for both employees and patrons. Let us help create the rules so we can reopen as quickly as possible."

Adds Jason Berkowitz, another co-founder of IHC and CEO of Arrow Up, of the past 10 months: "It's been emotionally, physically and financially disruptive to businesses and their employees. You can't just flip the switch on and off and be able to abide by new codes and regulations. Everyone is looking to protect their teams and it takes time and planning."