Resignation and anger swept through much of the local restaurant community this week, as business owners were faced, again, with a countywide closure of in-person dining, both indoor and outdoor, as a second surge of the coronavirus sweeps through the region.
With coronavirus cases spiking once again — the five day average of new daily cases crested at more than 4,500 on Monday, before dipping to 4,273 as of Wednesday — LA County opted to shutter in-person dining at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars, effective 10 p.m. Wednesday and lasting for at least three weeks. The news came less than a week after restaurants learned they’d have to reduce capacity as part of stricter statewide guidelines.
The countywide dining shutdown also comes after many restaurants had invested in building outdoor dining platforms and canopies that would allow them to serve more customers in the era of limitations.
The closures could also have an impact on the wider economy, already facing a slow recovery from the initial shutdowns earlier this year, with employees once again out of work.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors upheld the short-term ban on outdoor dining in a 3-2 vote.
For some business owners, the closures could signal the end of the line.
“I can barely make ends meet with eight outdoor tables,” Rick Hankus, owner of Ocean Diner in Hermosa Beach, said in an email. “Now that they want restaurants to only have to-go food, and no dining whatsoever, I am unable to keep the business open. Since I believe this shutdown will last months, not weeks, it’s the only choice I have.”
For others, it signaled a time for defiance.
“We’re going to be fine because I will tell you right now: I’m not closing,” said Alex Jordan, owner of the beloved Redondo Beach Bay diner Eat at Joe’s for two decades. “I’m going to take the chance that nobody is going to enforce it.
“I had 25 employees before COVID,” he added. “Now I’m down to about 12.”
It’s a sentiment that could spread.
Jason Rath and Shane McColgan, co-owners of The Crest Sports Bar & Grill in Old Torrance, said that twice this year they’ve furloughed more than 20 employees and have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the shutdown to build an outdoor patio and make other renovations. They said they’ve run through their life savings trying to keep the business afloat.
“We’re talking to other restaurant owners in the area,” McColgan said. “It’s very upsetting.”
Like others, they have begun questioning whether the action does more harm than good.
“None of this makes any sense,” McColgan said. “There’s a lot of unnecessary limitations they’re just putting on us. They should give people a choice.”
County health officials, for their part, have repeatedly said they will focus on education rather than enforcement, though continued non-compliance can lead to fines and closure.
Other establishments, meanwhile, planned to make the shift — again — to take-out or pickup only after Wednesday, Nov. 25.
Hankus’ other business, Java Man, also in Hermosa Beach, will continue to be open for to-go coffee and food only, minus the outdoor seating, Hankus said.
None of it bodes well, he said.
“I believe the next few months,” Hankus said, “will see many small restaurants going out of business in the South Bay.”
Some business owners said they were juggling the books, seeing how they could manage to keep their workers employed.
Brian Kelleher, co-owner of the Hook & Plow restaurants in Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, said he’s focused on trying to keep his 50 employees.
“Our employees who now are coming into the holiday season have already struggled enough with the first shutdown,” he said. “They’re now having to go without any income going into the holiday season for not only gifts that they would normally be purchasing, but also just to simply pay their rent or pay their bills. This is going to put a huge burden on them.”
The weariness could be heard in many of their voices.
“It’s definitely a letdown,” said David Holop of Brouwerij West in San Pedro.
He’d put up an overhead canopy on the craft brewery’s property in recent days. While the delivery and pick-up options brought in some decent business earlier in the pandemic, he said, competition from nearby Orange County restaurants and breweries that remain open are too much of a lure for those who still want to go out to see friends.
The shutdown, though, doesn’t just affect restaurant owners, but also their employees and an entire supply chain.
“It’s devastating,” said Eric Eisenberg, vice president of San Pedro’s downtown-waterfront business improvement district and a commercial property owner. “The consequences are going to be far reaching, beyond what I think local leaders realize.
“It’s a whole chain reaction,” he added. “We see tenants finally getting normalized (after the first shutdown) now getting shut down again.”
Nima Karimi, who juggles two high-profile San Pedro restaurants — Sebastian’s Mediterranean Cuisine and, a block away, La Bocca Felice, which opened a month — said he was faced with having to cut some employee hours right before the holidays.
“It is what it is, but it’s not only me; it’s everybody, so I am not complaining,” Karimi said. “But this is going to affect me much more than it did the first time. In the first shutdown, we had the energy to try new things, to go in different directions, to find solutions. Now, we are nine months into this and everybody’s drained. Just starting something or thinking about something new is going to be extremely tough.”
Still, the tightened county order came as little surprise to many restaurant owners, who said the warnings were all there. But it came much more swiftly than expected and just days before Thanksgiving.
“I think people are mentally trying to adjust,” said Elise Swanson, president and CEO of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, which is organizing a restaurant round-table to help local business owners brainstorm. “I’m very worried about our independent restaurant community.”
Anthony Pirozzi, a Los Angeles harbor commissioner whose father operated a small business in San Pedro for years, re-launched a hashtag campaign from March — #SLBSP (shop local businesses San Pedro) — to encourage people to support local businesses.
“I really feel for the small businesses,” he said. “I think people are just frustrated with all the inconsistencies. Most people want to do what’s right.”
There also doesn’t seem to be uniform agreement among elected officials on the best way to balance economic stability and the surge in new coronavirus cases.
“While I agree there is some risk of outdoor dining,” Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino said in a written comment, “that risk is completely overshadowed by all of the other things that people are doing to spread the virus.”
Tim McOsker, president of the San Pedro business improvement district, said the county also needs to do a better job explaining the “the methodologies and rationale for how we got to where we are” with the various closures.
People, he said, are discouraged.
“I’d just encourage anybody in the local community,” McOsker said, “if they have expendable funds, to shop and take out (food) locally.”
But the question remains: How long can these businesses survive being shutdown — especially with no specific reopening date in sight?
That’s top of mind for Brent Knapp, co-founder of Hawthorne’s Common Space Brewery & Tasting Room, who spent Monday pondering a new marketing plan to encourage the sale of to-go beers.
“I don’t see the numbers coming down in the next few weeks,” Knapp said. “I’m very concerned that this isn’t a three- or four-week thing.”
-Michael Hixon contributed to this story