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As California Locks Down Again, Bans on Outdoor Dining Bring Confusion and Outrage

Gov. Newsom enacts strictest measures seen since the spring.

bar worker measuring table distance Photo: courtesy Danielle Rice/Unsplash

So begins California’s Winter of discontent. The Golden State has seen a surge in Covid-19 cases in the wake of Thanksgiving, leaving cities, counties and the state to take measures akin to the spring lockdowns. That means that in parts of California even outdoor dining has been banned—but not without a backlash.

Last Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new lockdown guideline, pegging it to hospital bed availability. He divided the state into five parts, and if a region’s ICU capacity fell below 15 percent, then it would need to enter a lockdown similar to the last spring’s—personal services like nail salons would need to close, supermarkets reduce capacity and even outdoor dining would need to cease.

Before the Bay Area even hit that grim ICU threshold, county health departments announced on Friday that the region would enact the shutdown orders proactively, closing outdoor dining starting December 6 and lasting until at least January 4.

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Southern California’s ICU capacity fell to 12.5 percent Saturday and then 10.3 percent on Sunday, triggering a lockdown across the region. But the sheriff of Riverside County has said he won’t enforce Newsom’s order.

In Los Angeles County, the lockdown had already begun, to the consternation of the region’s restaurants. LA—both the county and the city—have strayed from the state’s guidelines with a more aggressive approach to curbing the virus, prompting angry restaurateurs to file suit. On Wednesday, a judge ordered the county health department to provide scientific evidence for singling out outdoor dining for a ban, while allowing various indoor services to continue.

Pasadena, which has its own health department, opted to not follow the LA County department’s orders, leaving outdoor dining as it had been. The Beverly Hills City Council voted to condemn the ban. And what further incensed restaurateurs was that LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voted to uphold the ban in support of the health department’s decision, citing outdoor dining’s danger when she did, only to eat at a restaurant that same night. If the danger was so imminent, why did she still feel safe enough to partake?

This follows similar actions by politicians who have disregarded the rules they’ve advocated for themselves. Newsom drew ire for breaking the Covid-19 guidelines he espouses to celebrate a power lobbyist’s birthday at The French Laundry; San Francisco mayor London Breed’s dinner at the same restaurant the very next night also ruffled feathers; and then a half-dozen state legislators flew to Hawaii in November to attend a conference funded by special interests.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has been under fire of late as well. Though he didn’t close outdoor dining—that was the county’s decision—the city has faced withering criticism for its handling of shutdown orders.

There was, of course, the baffling decision to compromise one of the city’s largest testing centers at Union Station by permitting the filming of a gender-swapped remake of She’s All That called, creatively, He’s All That, which stars TikTok influencers. (Truly a sentence that, if Marty and Doc arrived to 2020 from 1985 in their DeLorean, there’s no possible way I could decode it for them.)

Then, Garcetti’s office issued lockdown orders for Angelenos on December 2 featuring this heavy-handed edict that “All travel, including, without limitation, travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit is prohibited, subject to the exceptions in Paragraph V.”

It turns out Garcetti has a loose definition of “necessary” (you absolutely can’t step foot outside your home unless you want to do something like go to the gym to getting your nails done?) that almost renders the previous passage moot. It left people scratching their heads about what is actually behind the decision-making. That led to the viral video Saturday of a bar owner in the city going back to her currently shutdown business to fetch some supplies to find that right next to it was a permitted catering area for a film shoot that looked eerily similar to the outdoor dining area she is not allowed to operate.

The video was shared by restaurateurs both inside and outside of LA, as a glaring example of how they’ve been asked to sacrifice in a way that’s more severe than other sectors of the economy.

But now, amid a new shutdown that will affect about 33 million Californians, the debates over which businesses should be forced to close and which should still operate are mostly beside the point. California has resumed a broad shutdown to try and bend the curve. Most businesses will now close temporarily—and rightfully so. Because, in the current equation, no amount of hypocrisy or the justifiable outrage it elicits will actually alter the course of the pandemic. Staying home will.

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