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As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise across Los Angeles County, Manhattan Beach is closing outdoor seating spaces on public property, effective Sunday at 10 p.m. (Photo by Chuck Bennett, Contributing Photographer)

Manhattan Beach has shuttered public seating areas that were transformed from outdoor dining decks, and drew the ire of Los Angeles County public health officials, because of the ongoing coronavirus surge — though the fate of those spaces will likely face scrutiny again this week.

The city on Saturday, Jan. 2, announced that it would close public seating areas, removing chairs and tables, as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue soaring, largely because of holiday gatherings and people ignoring health guidelines. Creating the public seating areas, a largely semantic strategy to allow people continue eating at dining decks near restaurants but without the benefit of tableside service, was the city’s way of balancing public health needs with the the impact coronavirus-related business closures have had to local companies.

“The decision was largely made by our observations of how devastatingly this spread is impacting our community,” Councilmember Hildy Stern said by phone Monday, Jan. 4. “We’ve always had to look at the balance with economic impact (while) reacting to the changing pandemic.”

In a Saturday press release, the city attributed the move to virus cases in Manhattan Beach nearly doubling since the beginning of November, from 425 on Nov. 1 to 821 as of Saturday.

Manhattan Beach in early December repurposed restaurants’ outdoor dining decks, on city-owned property, for public seating areas, allowing patrons to order takeout meals and eat them outside. City officials, at the time, touted the new policy — a workaround of the county’s decision to once again ban all in-person dining to further prevent the spread of the coronavirus — as a way to help the dining industry survive. The state’s current regional stay-at-home order, which remains in effect, also bans in-person dining.

A few days after the city’s new policy began, however, county health inspectors ordered some establishments to stop outdoor dining; within that same week the county health officer sent the city a letter ordering it to stop its new policy, explaining that ‘public seating’ poses the same risks as customers getting served at outdoor tables.

City officials, at the time, said they were looking into what the letter meant for the new policy, though they had defended it after the county’s initial criticism of it.

But then came the city’s weekend reversal.

Councilmembers Steve Napolitano and Richard Montgomery, in a subcommittee for long-term business solutions in the downtown area, decided Saturday to close the public seating areas; the committee had power to implement the decision without going to a council meeting.

Restaurants began removing tables and chairs from those outdoor areas Sunday night at the city’s recent direction.

But the City Council will discuss the move at its Tuesday, Jan. 5, meeting. Mayor Suzanne Hadley said she looks forward to learning why the committee chose to nix the policy that was intended to help businesses stay afloat.

“There appears to be a majority in favor of this, but I think the public and our businesses should weigh in,” Hadley said by phone Monday. “I’d like to hear from my colleagues what their reasoning was behind the change; we don’t have data specifically linking COVID cases with outdoor dining, so I’m reluctant to punish our smaller businesses for something that isn’t their fault.”

It is true that there’s no data linking coronavirus cases to in-person dining, either outdoors or inside. But health officials have citied a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that showed in-person dining, even outdoors, can lead to transmissions. And, health officials have repeatedly said, the lack of data linking dining to coronavirus transmissions is true of other activities as well, because of the complexity of contact tracing and figuring out when, exactly, someone contracted the virus.

Those same health officials have also said that in-person dining poses a greater risk than other activities because it’s the one where groups from different households gather in the same place for extended periods of time, and because folks must remove their masks to eat and drink.

Still, preventing outdoor dining — even via the city’s workaround — could further hurt restaurants.

Having to get rid of the exterior tables and chairs “puts one more nail in the coffin,” said Ben Ramos, a manager at Pancho’s, one of the restaurants the county ordered to stop outdoor dining.

“It’s unfortunate for us they closed it; I know the city is scared but I think they rushed it,” Ramos said on Monday. “I really think they could’ve held off a few more weeks to see what happens after this season of people getting together.”

Business is just not the same, he added, when people can only get to-go orders.

“People come in, buy their meals and ask us, ‘Where can we go eat?’” Ramos added. “They want to relax themselves somewhere — just sitting out there even watching cars pass by gives you some sort of normalcy. Now they just have to go back home or eat in their cars.”

The city will monitor whether restaurants are abiding by the new rule, Stern said, and give warnings to any that don’t comply.

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